Tensions between Russia, Iran ratchet up over nuclear program

Russia, which has been one of the few defenders of Iran's nuclear progam, has taken a harder stance on the issue, saying it is "unacceptable" for Tehran to possess the potential to make a nuclear bomb and that Moscow "will not play anti-American games."

The Russian newspaper Kommersant quotes state news agency reports — which are presumed to represent the Kremlin position — saying if Iran does not comply with the demands of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to halt the country's uranium enrichment program, Russia will withdraw its support.

A "well-informed source" connected with atomic energy complained that "the Iranians are misusing their constructive relation with Russia and are doing nothing to help us convince our colleagues of the coherence of Tehran's actions." His opinion was reported by all leading Russian information agencies simultaneously and, in keeping with recent practice, can be assumed to come directly from the Kremlin.

Iran insists it is enriching uranium for use in power plants, but the US and its allies contend that the program is aimed at producing nuclear weapons. Reuters reports the Russian source said that because of Iran's refusal to halt uranium enrichment at the request of the IAEA and the UN Security Council, Russia is "suffering losses in terms of foreign policy and our image while they stand their ground."

"If they do not respond to the questions of the IAEA, let them answer for themselves."

"They cannot play on our methodical good relations eternally and they need to understand that."

Russia holds the key to future U.N. sanctions on Iran because it holds a veto in the Security Council and has used its influence to soften previous measures.

At the center of the current tensions is a nuclear power plant that Moscow has been building in Tehran through Russian state-owned contractor Atomstroiexport. The Washington Post reports that Russia has accused Iran of failing to make the scheduled $25 million monthly payments for the Bushehr facility, and the September launch date for its reactor will not be met because of it.

Iran reportedly wants to make payments in euros, not dollars, which Russia has refused to accept without renegotiating the contract. There are reports here that the contract has become unprofitable and Russia may want to extract additional financial and political concessions.

The Russian news agency Itar-Tass reports that under the agreement to build the Busheher plant, Russia was due to deliver nuclear fuel six months prior to the launch date, which means a September launch date would necessitate fuel delivery by March. But because the project deadline of September has been postponed, Russia will not deliver the fuel this month.

The Tehran Times reports that Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad-Ali Hosseini said Sunday that Iran has honored all of its financial commitments and that he hopes Russia "will not politicize the matter" of the plant's delay. "We expect the Russians to honor their commitments, too, and to transfer the fuel by the agreed time, which is two weeks from now," he added. Iran-based news network PRESS-TV reports that Gholam-Reza Aqazadeh, head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, also denied that Iran owed Russia money, saying: "We have always paid them (Russians) ahead of time. We have never had any debt to them. They know it."

In an analysis, Global intelligence provider Stratfor (subscription) says that Russian president Vladimir Putin is behind the decision to stop construction on the Bushehr plant, and the plant will never be completed while Putin is president because it is not in Russia's best political interests to do so.

Ultimately, it is all political. Russia uses Bushehr as a means of injecting its influence into the Middle East, positioning itself as an impossible-to-ignore go-between for the West and Iran. So long as the facility is under construction, Moscow has maximized its leverage with all parties.

Should the facility ever come on line, however, Moscow will lose hugely. First, the West would be furious with Russia for giving Iran functional nuclear technology, severely damaging Russian relations with the West. Second, with Bushehr operational, neither the West nor Iran would need to keep talking to Russia about the Iranian nuclear power program. Third, Iran is not a natural Russian ally. The two have fought in a number of wars and actively compete for influence in Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. A nuclear-armed Iran is actually more of a long-term threat to Russia than it is to the United States, which a strategist like Putin knows well.

The increased tensions over Bushehr come as the United Nations Security Council considers further sanctions against Iran. A Council resolution last December imposed weakened sanctions on Tehran for not suspending its uranium enrichment program. The Associated Press reports that Germany and permanent Council members Britian, France, the US, Russia, and China are close to an agreement on a round of tougher sanctions, although Council diplomats say the new sanctions are unlikely to include a ban on international travel by Iranian officials and a halt on export credit guarantees by countries doing business in Iran.

But diplomats say the new sanctions resolution is expected to include an embargo on arms exports, a ban on government loans to Iran and an asset freeze on more individuals and companies linked to Tehran's nuclear and missile programs.

"It's a package approach, and so there are things that we're very pleased about, and things that we're less pleased about – and likewise for probably every delegation involved," said acting U.S. Ambassador Alejandro Wolff.

The United States and the Europeans favored all the measures but Russia and China, which have close commercial ties with Iran, are reluctant to impose tough new sanctions.

The New York Times reports that Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wants to address the Security Council to defend Iran's nuclear program before more sanctions are levvied. But Agence-France Presse reports that Iran's former president, Mohammad Khatami, has said that his country must "pay a certain price" and make concessions to avoid another resolution.

Khatami urged Iran to avoid provocations and act with prudence, in marked contrast to Ahmadinejad who has repeatedly vowed in the most graphic language that the nuclear program will go on.

"We can prevent a crisis with discretion and courage. In nuclear and regional issues, especially Iraq, we should act with prudence and not provoke," said Khatami.

The AP reports that the increased pressure on Iran's nuclear program comes as the country has begun issuing a new bank note design with an image of electrons flying around the nucleus of an atom, seen as an assertion of Iran's national will to continue on its path to nuclear capability.

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