Whom Does The Iranian Nuclear Program Threaten?

Washington is demanding that Russia stop all nuclear cooperation with Iran, that it renounce a contract for the construction of the Bushehr NPP (Nuclear Power Plant), and that it freeze all other facilities and programs within the framework of the Iranian nuclear power industry. The United States claims that such programs can help Iran, which ranks among the Moslem world's largest countries, and which allegedly supports international terrorism, to develop its own nuclear weapons.

However, any convincing evidence to the effect that Teheran supports terrorist organizations is lacking. Nonetheless, Russia is also concerned over the Iranian nuclear program. You see, Iran boasts an initial potential for developing nuclear weapons. Among other things, uranium deposits are located in its Jazd province; nonetheless, such relatively poor deposits contain only 50 grams of uranium per every 100 kg of uranium ore. Moreover, these deposits, which can't ensure full-fledged NPP operation, will be depleted quickly enough several years from now. However, they will provide enough uranium for making several nuclear warheads.

A uranium-separation factory is currently being constructed in Erdekan city; plans are in place to commission this enterprise in 2005. An Isfahan-based uranium-concentrate enterprise can be commissioned anytime now. (By the way, uranium concentrate resembles some kind of a yellow powder - Ed.) Iran is to start building a uranium-conversion factory, and a pilot uranium-enrichment facility, 150 km from Isfahan can be commissioned in the near future. The Isfahan nuclear center boasts several labs, which turn out fuel for water-cooled and water-moderated (VVER) reactors. Moreover, Iran is now completing an enterprise, which will be producing fuel-assembly cases.

Iran has made considerable headway in developing a closed-loop fuel cycle. This implies the nuclear power industry alone. IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) experts estimate that Iran will be able to turn out its own NPP fuel by the year 2006. Most nuclear experts know perfectly well that Iranian uranium deposits can provide only about 33 percent of all uranium for operating one VVER-1000 power unit. Meanwhile the projected gas-centrifuge uranium-enrichment factory won't produce enough fuel for even one VVER reactor, let alone seven reactors, due to be constructed by Iran in Bushehr some 18 years from now.

So, why is Iran moving to create a closed-loop nuclear fuel cycle, if its nuclear power industry lacks such fuel? One should also keep in mind that, if produced, such fuel would cost some 200-400 percent more than foreign nuclear fuel.

There can be several answers to this question.

Iran wants to acquire hi-tech equipment and technologies, without creating commercial uranium-production, as well as uranium-conversion and fuel-production facilities. First of all, Teheran needs this stuff in order to bargain with the United States, North Korean style. To cut a long story short, Iran might renounce construction of uranium-enrichment facilities in exchange for a possible US decision to lift unilateral economic sanctions.

Second, Teheran's nuclear program aims to acquire a technical potential for developing nuclear weapons some time from now. Teheran's international commitments present no obstacle whatsoever because Iran can produce highly enriched uranium, as well as weapon-grade plutonium, stockpiling them at separate enterprises under IAEA supervision. At the same time, Iran can acquire the required technical and material potential for developing nuclear weapons in just a few months, as soon as it stockpiles enough weapon-grade nuclear materials. Meanwhile the relevant political decision for using these reserves for military purposes can be made, in case, Iranian-US relations deteriorate still further, and if the US Administration starts preparing to overthrow the incumbent Teheran regime. In a nutshell, one can talk about a veritable national-security insurance policy, which would tally with international law.

Still it goes without saying that this scenario won't benefit Russia, as well as the entire international community. What can be done in order to prevent these negative developments?

First of all, we must convince Teheran to sign the additional IAEA protocol, as the IAEA expands its cooperation with member-countries. The Iranian position is as follows: Two objectives should be accomplished at one go. First of all, the level of trust between specific countries and the IAEA should be enhanced; in other words, IAEA countries should make their nuclear programs more transparent. Second, the IAEA should facilitate the development of national nuclear programs. Teheran believes that the IAEA should balance between its technical-control functions and sectoral-aid functions.

In addition, Teheran is demanding guarantees as regards non-discriminatory IAEA operations. In its opinion, the additional IAEA protocol should be signed by Teheran, as well as other countries, which are not covered by large-scale IAEA guarantees. The list of such countries includes Israel, first and foremost. Naturally enough, this requirement won't be fulfilled in the foreseeable future, to say the least.

Russia voices a consistent and principled position on this issue. Moscow keeps saying time and again that Teheran should ink the afore-said additional protocol. This was stated by a Russian delegate at the 47-th session of the IAEA general conference. Iran doesn't refuse to do this; on the other hand, Iran wants to find out all about possible benefits. However, the IAEA hasn't yet provided its final answer.

Neither Russia, nor the United States want Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. Consequently, we must expand cooperation in those specific areas where our interests coincide. Moscow provides Washington with confidential information, which is leaked to the US press and even spearheaded against Russia and its interests in some cases.

As I see it, Russia should continue to link subsequent nuclear cooperation between Moscow and Teheran with the signing of the additional IAEA protocol by the Iranian leadership. Moscow should also demand that Teheran pledge to return spent nuclear fuel. Iranian leaders, who have repeatedly made this promise, should ink this document to date.

Russia should not moth-ball construction of light-water power units, if Iran abides by such wishes. The thing is that VVER-1000 reactors can't be used to develop nuclear weapons. Meanwhile the projected Bushehr NPP would yield an impressive economic effect. One Bushehr power unit costs $1 billion; moreover, about 300 Russian enterprises employing more than 20,000 workers, engineers and technicians are involved in this program. It would be ridiculous to lose this lucrative contract. The US side promises to compensate Russian losses; however, such promises may never be fulfilled, as has been the case more than once. Among other things, Washington had insistently asked Ukraine not to deliver its turbines for the Iranian NPP. Well, Kiev did comply, nonetheless receiving no compensation in return.

At the same time, we should attach priority to control over export operations on the part of those particular Russian enterprises, which offer sensitive goods and services (in the context of the non-proliferation regime), as well as R&D centers, which possess nuclear and missile secrets. Mind you, Iran has repeatedly tried to learn about those secrets in violation of the law.

The Russian foreign-policy concept perceives Iran as one of this country's leading Moslem-world partners. Partner-like relations between Moscow and Teheran would largely solve the problems of radical Islamic movements in the Caucasus (where Teheran consistently supports the Kremlin's position). Russia, which has 20 million Moslems, considers Iran's support for its anti-terrorist policies in Chechnya as something highly important because Iran boasts substantial influence in the Islamic world.

President Vladimir Putin of the Russian Federation addresses this issue in a pragmatic manner. There are certain specifics, which imply the need for heeding the international community's security concerns, Putin believes. Russia, which is a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and which is also a G-8 member, should pay attention to such concerns; however, it should not forget about its national interests either, Putin added.