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.
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Legacy lives on at Parchin military base
The legacy of the 1990s still reverberates today. A former Soviet nuclear scientist from Ukraine, Vyacheslav Danilenko, has been a key source for the UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) investigation into the sprawling Parchin military base southeast of Tehran.Skip to next paragraph
Mr. Danilenko claims he was unaware of any nuclear weapons applications of his work in Iran from 1996 to 2002, when he was working as a specialist in creating nanodiamonds for industrial use.
But IAEA inspectors believe a large explosives containment vessel, built at Parchin in 2000 using Danilenko's expertise, may contain clues which the IAEA reported in November 2011 would be "strong indicators of possible [nuclear] weapon development."
Fresh access to the site – it was inspected twice before, in 2005, but not the buildings under new scrutiny – has yet to be granted by Iran.
Instead, the IAEA last week stated that satellite images of Parchin showed the site being sanitized by the Iranians, with "significant ground scraping and landscaping" that had "significantly hampered" the IAEA's ability to detect any past work with radioactive material.
Halting Iran's empire ambitions
Analysts agree that Russia has its own reasons to prevent Iran from ever going for a nuclear weapon – a step that Iran's supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has rejected as un-Islamic and a "sin."
"Russia does not want Iran to have nukes, not because Iran is dangerous – they don't invade countries – but because of its own self-interest. They think that if Iran has nuclear weapons, it will change everything," says Lana Ravandi-Fedai, an Iranian researcher with the Institute of Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences, referring to the region's balance of power.
"Everyone forgets about the national psychology of Iranians, it's a cocktail of empire feelings, of the Persian Empire," says Vladimir Sazhin, an Iran expert with the Institute of Oriental Studies. "The Islamic Republic of Iran must be the empire in the Middle East."
Mr. Sazhin says Iranians were excluded from studying natural sciences after some were "found to be spies" in the late 1990s.
"There were several cases when Iranian post-graduates tried to buy technologies here and tried to contact Russian experts working in national defense," says Yevgeny Novikov from the Russian Institute of Strategic Studies. "All Iranians who were excessively interested in Russian technologies and specialists were expelled."
That has been just one damaging episode in Russia's recent turbulent history with Iran.
"Moscow uses Iran as leverage in its political dialogue with Washington," which is of much greater importance to Russia, notes Mr. Kozhanov of the Washington Institute.
Russian distrust of Iran's nuclear intentions dates to the 2002 revelations about undeclared Iranian nuclear facilities, which "drastically affected Russian cooperation," says Kozhanov. Iran later also turned down a string of Russian enrichment proposals, "seriously irritating Russian authorities and provoking them to support" UN sanctions.
Weapons deals were cut back, and in 2010 one sale of great interest to Iran – of the S-300 air defense system, which Iran wanted to deploy around its nuclear facilities – was suspended.
None of that changes the advanced knowledge Iran already has, analysts say.
"They have a lot of experts, who are devoutly doing this work in the Islamic Republic," says Vladimir Sotnikov, a senior researcher at the Institute of Oriental Studies. "Iranians have enough expertise to continue for years with a nuclear weapons effort, if they want.... This remains in Iran."
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