Russia, Iran set collision
course By Sergei Blagov
MOSCOW - Despite differences between Russia and
the United States over Tehran's nuclear ambitions,
Moscow is still moving toward forging a "partnership"
with Iran, which has been labeled by US President George
W Bush as part of an "axis of evil".
Russian President Vladimir Putin met with visiting
Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi in Moscow and
accepted an invitation to visit Tehran this year. Putin
assured the Iranian chief diplomat that Iran remained
Russia's "old and stable partner".
When US Under
Secretary of State for Arms Control John Bolton traveled
to Moscow shortly afterward, he urged Russia not to
supply nuclear fuel to Iran's Bushehr reactor until
Tehran addressed international concerns that Iran might
develop a nuclear-weapons program. Bolton told
journalists in Moscow that "tactical" differences
between the US and Russia remained over Iran's nuclear
In response, after a meeting with
Bolton, the head of Russia's Nuclear Power Agency,
Alexander Rumyantsev, reiterated that Russia abided by
international agreements banning the proliferation of
Russia has long been under
fire for its help in building the Bushehr nuclear plant
on Iran's Persian Gulf coast. The US has insisted that
the Russian technology could be used to develop nuclear
weapons, but Moscow and Tehran argue that the plant will
only be used for civilian purposes. Moscow has brushed
off repeated US demands that it cancel Bushehr's
1,000-megawatt light-water nuclear-reactor project.
Russia has said it would freeze construction on
the US$1 billion Bushehr plant and would not begin
delivering fuel for the reactor until Iran signed an
agreement that would oblige it to return all of the
spent fuel to Russia for reprocessing and storage. This
agreement was reported as close to being signed last
September, but so far an agreement has failed to
This month Russian Foreign
Minister Sergei Lavrov announced in Moscow that the
issue of the return of the spent fuel to Russia had been
solved. However, he conceded that "commercial"
differences with Iran over the issue remained.
Last October, Russia announced a delay for the
launch of the Bushehr nuclear reactor until 2005 and
urged Tehran to improve disclosure of its nuclear plans.
However, there has been no talk in Moscow about dropping
the Bushehr project. Last week, Russia's Nuclear Power
Agency reportedly indicated it would finish a nuclear
reactor in Iran regardless.
For years, the
Kremlin has resisted US pressure and declined to limit
ties with Iran. In March 2001, Putin and Iranian
President Mohammad Khatami signed a cooperation treaty.
Subsequently, in October of that year, Moscow and Tehran
signed framework agreements for $300 million to $400
million a year of Russian military supplies to Iran,
including spare parts for Russian-made weapons, new
fighter jets and possibly air-defense, ground-to-ground
and anti-ship systems.
Apart from attempts to
discourage Russia from fueling Iran's nuclear ambitions,
the US has pursued its efforts to persuade Russia to
join the US-backed non-proliferation initiative. The
hawkish Bolton regularly visits Russia for
non-proliferation talks. However, last week Russian
Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Kislyak announced after a
meeting with Bolton that no agreement had been reached
on Russia joining the Proliferation Security Initiative
Moscow has so far refrained from a clear
commitment to join the PSI. Russia is the only Group of
Eight member that is yet to join the PSI, which was
announced by Bush last May.
Apart from the
Bushehr project, Russia has other interests in Iran.
Last Thursday, top railway executives of Russia, Iran
and Azerbaijan met in Moscow and agreed to build a
Kazvin-Resht-Astara rail link connecting the three
nations. Gennady Fadeyev, head of the state-run Russian
Railways Co (RZD), pledged to build a $100 million,
340-kilometer link connecting Russia to the Persian Gulf
via Azerbaijan and Iran. Fadeyev claimed that the link
could funnel up to 20 million tons of freight to India
Russia and Iran have long
discussed the restoration of a rail link between the two
countries as a viable alternative to Red Sea routes.
This alternative transport link from Asia to Europe -
from Mumbai to the Caspian port of Olya in the Astrakhan
region via Bandar Abbas in Iran - is expected to bring
Russia billions of dollars in revenues.
India and Iran signed an agreement on the development of
this so-called North-South Corridor in September 2000.
Russia estimates that the link could become a rival of
the Suez Canal. Russia estimates that annual trade
turnover through the corridor could reach $10 billion
per year, with Russia and Iran becoming the main
Meanwhile, Moscow's "partnership"
with Tehran could prove double-edged, notably after Iran
clinched a controversial gas deal with Russia's sole
ally in the volatile Trans-Caucasus region, Armenia. In
mid-May, Iran's minister of oil, Bijan Namdar Zanganeh,
traveled to Armenia and signed an agreement on the
construction of a 114km Iran-Armenia gas pipeline that
would cost $120 million. Iran reportedly agreed to
supply 1.27 trillion cubic feet (36 billion cubic
meters) to Armenia from 2007-27.
Iran-Armenia pipeline could also be extended through
Georgia to Ukraine and on to the European Union. The
Iran-Armenia-Georgia-Ukraine-Europe gas pipeline, with a
550km underwater section from the Georgian port of Supsa
to the Crimean town of Feodosia, has been estimated to
cost $5 billion. The planned gas supply would amount to
2.12 trillion cubic feet (60 billion cubic meters) per
annum, including 353 billion cubic feet (10 billion
cubic meters) for Ukraine.
Russia has been wary
that the extended pipeline could be used to funnel
Iranian gas to European markets. It could also allow
Turkmenistan to circumvent Russia's gas-pipeline
network. However, Armenia is yet to make a decision on
the extended pipeline.
Armenia is traditionally
Russia's closest partner in the Caucasus. Sandwiched
among hostile Azerbaijan and Turkey and volatile
Georgia, Armenia has little option but to remain a
supporter of Russia's geopolitical moves in the
Caucasus. However, some divergent interests have emerged
recently, notably Armenia's aspirations to limit its
dependence on Russian energy supplies by building a gas
pipeline from Iran to Europe. Therefore, Russia's
"partnership" with Iran could have its limits after all,
and not because of the United States.
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