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    Central Asia
     Mar 26, 2005
Russia steadfast on Iran
By Sergei Blagov

MOSCOW - Russia's insistence on its nuclear ties with Iran has gained momentum, as major European powers have announced that they have no contradiction with it.

Russia has claimed that Iran's nuclear program should not be viewed as a threat. "I do not see any connection between Iran and the problem of nuclear weapons non-proliferation," the head of Russia's Federal Atomic Energy Agency, Alexander Rumyantsev, said on Tuesday.

Iran continues to insist that it is not developing nuclear weapons - the US believes it is. "The Islamic republic has repeatedly announced Iran is not seeking weapons of mass destruction," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid-Reza Asefi said this week, and added that Iran's nuclear program was non-military.

The remarks came in the wake of a declaration made during a summit of Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Jacques Chirac, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero in Paris. The leaders announced that there was no contradiction between the Europeans' measures in nuclear talks with Iran and Russia's nuclear aid to Tehran.

Putin said Russia's cooperation with Iran was conditional on the transparency of Tehran's policies, its respect of International Atomic Energy Agency decisions and its renunciation of any nuclear military program.

"Russia ships fuel and takes it back," Schroeder said. "The fuel is not processed, nor is it enriched and cannot be enriched in Iran," he said with Putin by his side. Chirac said, "There is no contradiction between the Russian position and the position which Britain, Germany and France [EU-3] are jointly negotiating."

The EU-3 are negotiating with Iran to come to an agreement that it will not use its atomic energy program to acquire nuclear weapons. In exchange, the three European governments are offering a package of trade, security and technology incentives. For the time being, the US is going along with this process, although it remains deeply skeptical.

The Europeans were so eager for easy talks with Putin that they made Iran look like a point of agreement, instead of one that has long troubled Russia's relations with the West, the Russian official RIA Novosti news agency commented.

The EU-3 have been negotiating for the EU with Iran since December to secure "objective guarantees" that the regime will not use its atomic energy program to acquire nuclear weapons. However, the European Union's three biggest powers ended a new round of talks with Iran in Paris on Wednesday without persuading Tehran to stop its controversial nuclear program.

Iran reaffirmed strongly on Tuesday that it will pursue a full-scale nuclear program, from mining uranium to enriching it and also building a heavy-water reactor that can produce plutonium. "The people and government of Iran are determined to open their way through the tortuous path of peaceful use of nuclear technology despite all imposed restrictions and difficulties," said Mohammad Saeidi, vice president of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran.

Nonetheless, the Kremlin remains keen to strengthen its partnership with Tehran. In February, Putin, at a meeting in Moscow with visiting Iranian secretary of the Iranian National Security Council, Hasan Rouhani, reiterated Russia's readiness to develop cooperation with Iran. Putin also accepted an invitation to visit Tehran this year.

Russia has been going ahead with the controversial nuclear deal with Iran. On February 27, Iran and Russia finally signed a nuclear fuel supply agreement. Iranian Vice President Gholamreza Aghazadeh and the head of Russia's Atomic Energy Agency, Alexander Rumyantsev, inked an agreement at the Bushehr nuclear plant in southern Iran. Under the deal Iran has to return spent nuclear fuel from the reactor. Tehran agreed to sign the deal after long disputes. "Our cooperation with Iran is completely in accordance with international regulations and we have not violated any law," Rumyantsev said.

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 2001, Moscow and Tehran signed framework agreements for US$300 million to $400 million a year in the form 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.

Presumably because of its reliance on Russian arms, Tehran has sounded defiant. On Wednesday, Iranian Supreme Leader Seyed Ali Khamenei pledged to defend his country if attacked. He denounced the US and vowed he was ready to lead his nation to war. Khamenei says the US has been fabricating "pretexts" to block Iran's development.

Incidentally, this month Ukraine admitted that it exported 12 Russian-made long-range cruise missiles to Iran in 2001. The X-55, also termed AS-15, was designed to carry a 200-kiloton nuclear warhead with an estimated range of more than 3,000 kilometers. Like the US Tomahawk cruise missile, the AS-15 is designed to fly at a low altitude. The AS-15 operated from long-range strategic bombers.

If AS-15 missiles become operational, Iran will be in striking distance of all Middle East states as well as many countries in Europe. Iran currently does not have large strategic bombers designed to launch the AS-15. Even if launched from Iranian territory, the AS-15 could still hit any country in the Middle East, including Israel, as well as US forces stationed in the region.

The US and Israel both accuse Iran of seeking to develop nuclear weapons. Washington has not ruled out military options to prevent Tehran of acquiring the bomb should diplomacy fail.

However, despite repeated media allegations of otherwise, Israel ruled out preventive military action against Iran. Israel has no intention of launching a strike against Iranian nuclear installations, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon reportedly said on Tuesday during talks with a visiting delegation from US Congress.

This month Britain's Sunday Times reported that Israel had drawn up plans for a combined air and ground attack on Iranian nuclear sites should diplomatic efforts fail to halt Tehran's alleged nuclear program. Sharon's inner cabinet gave "initial authorization" for an attack at a private meeting in February, the weekly said. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said immediately that Washington had not sanctioned any Israeli military strike against Iranian nuclear sites.

Putin is due to travel to Israel on April 27-28, where he will probably aim, among other things, at defusing tensions over Iran's nuclear program.

Sergei Blagov covers Russia and post-Soviet states, with special attention to Asia-related issues. He has contributed to Asia Times Online since1996. Between 1983 and 1997, he was based in Southeast Asia. In 2001 and 2002, Nova Science Publishers, New York, published two of his books on Vietnamese history.

(Copyright 2005 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us for information on sales, syndication and republishing.)


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