Russian nuclear support for Iran limited by distrust
Russia has trained hundreds of Iranian nuclear scientists and blocked international action against Tehran. But beneath the surface, there is profound distrust.
Russia built Iran's first nuclear power plant, once sold Tehran sophisticated weaponry, and refuses to back further international sanctions over Iran's controversial nuclear program, but this apparent coziness belies years of suspicion and growing distance between the two nuclear powers.Skip to next paragraph
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Despite the fact that Russia is training hundreds of nuclear scientists to operate the Bushehr plant, Russian analysts say that Moscow has contributed little to Iran's recent strides in uranium enrichment and nuclear technology.
Iran has been locked for months in negotiations with world powers over limiting its nuclear program, as Israeli leaders have threatened to conduct military strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities. Russia straddles both camps, but has its own turbulent history with Iran that complicates its role.
Gone are the dangerous, free-wheeling 1990s, when the collapse of the Soviet Union left legions of nuclear and missile engineers without work and willing to sell their services to the highest bidder – with Iran reported to be a frequent destination.
And the ranks of Iranian students studying nuclear and other physical sciences in Russia was thinned out years ago due to official concerns about spying and the ultimate purpose of the Islamic Republic's expertise, Russian experts say.
Even at the height of their cooperation, Russia imposed limits on the collaboration.
"The Kremlin did not want Iran student specialists to come here, because they had the impression they were not just students, but fundamentalist Islamists," says Rajab Safarov, director of the Center for Studying Modern Iran in Moscow.
A senior Kremlin official once told him: "God save us! Why do we have these agents of Islamic radicalism here?" recalls Safarov. "Because once you have them, you don't know whom you are preparing, who is by your side."
One result has been that warm rhetoric about Iran-Russian ties – such as when President Vladimir Putin says Russia “has always defended the rights of the Iranian nation” – is more talk than reality.
"It is difficult to find another country whose relations with Moscow have experienced so many drastic twists in a such a relatively short time," writes Nikolay Kozhanov in a June analysis for The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.