Russia warns that Iran nuclear talks too slow to forestall conflict

Russian is uniquely placed to mediate between Iran and world powers, but analysts say Moscow's role is limited in part by a lack of compromise from Washington and Tehran.

Kirill Kudryavtsev/REUTERS/File
European Union Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton (l.) meets with Iran's chief negotiator Saeed Jalili in Moscow in this June 18 file photo.

Although progress was made at Iran nuclear talks in Moscow this week, Russian analysts are concerned that the pace may be too slow to forestall a military conflict. They also caution that Russia's ability to mediate, a role for which it is uniquely suited, is limited by the lack of compromise from both Washington and Tehran – and Moscow's own variable relations with the Islamic Republic.

Western diplomats are anonymously spinning the line that Iran doesn't really want a deal that would restrict its nuclear program. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested that some in Iran see an attack is the "best thing ... because that would unify [Iran], it would legitimize the regime."

The Iranian media, likewise, charged that plans of the P5+1 group (the US, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany) were "built on an axis of destruction," and that Israel sabotaged the talks. One Iranian lawmaker said failure was inevitable if "Westerners want to move under the instructions of the Zionist regime."

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Russia straddles both camps like no other. As part of the P5+1, it has joined in ever-increasing sanctions on Iran. Yet it also built Iran's only nuclear power reactor, and sold sophisticated armaments to Iran for years.

Like all the members of the P5+1, Russia does not want Iran to have a nuclear weapon. But it argues that diplomacy is the only way to ensure that end. So Russia's pessimistic assessment may matter, because of the wide chasm that remains as experts gather for technical meetings in Istanbul on July 3.

"For Russia the result is moderately positive," says Sergei Markov, a Kremlin adviser and vice president of the Plekhanov Economic University in Moscow. "It showed Iran is more ready to express its views and compromise, and the Western side did not issue an ultimatum."

Yet the talks need a "more clear advance and quicker developments" if they are to forestall a conflict, says Mr. Markov, who calculates that there is a "quite high" chance of an Israeli attack on Iran in July or August – just months before the US presidential election in November.

"If we would have three more years of such moderately positive results, it would be good," says Markov. "But in this much tighter time-frame, it is not enough."

Israel has repeatedly threatened military action to prevent Iran from achieving even the capability of making a nuclear weapon, much less an actual bomb, and demands that Iran halt all enrichment, permanently. It has decried the talks as a waste of time, while Iran continues to enrich uranium for what it declares are peaceful purposes.

'Give up the practice of demonizing Iran'

Iran has repeatedly rejected nuclear weapons as un-Islamic, and US intelligence agencies believe that Iran has not made a decision to go for a bomb. Even if it did so, experts agree, Iran is still years away from making a deliverable device.

"One should give up the practice of demonizing Iran, which a number of Western countries have been doing for years already," says Igor Korotchenko, director of the Center for Analysis of World Arms Trade in Russia.

"There is no proof that Iran is carrying out a military nuclear program," said Mr. Korotchenko, speaking at a press conference of Iran experts a day after the Moscow talks ended. "There are suspicions and they stay suspicions. Despite so much attention of various [intelligence agencies], there is no proof. We still remember the situation in Iraq and fruitless searches for biological weapons in Saddam Hussein' palaces."

While Russia wants dialogue, Western nations "prefer to use more radical steps for the sake of saving the world," says Rajab Safarov, director of the Center for Studying Modern Iran.

"They do not want Iran to speak in any way as equals," Mr. Safarov said at the same event. "The West has driven itself into such a place that by 3 p.m. [on Tuesday] the talks were already over, and it was a failure."

A last-minute effort to save the Moscow round yielded the agreement a few hours later to hold the technical meeting only in Istanbul on July 3.

Moscow talks more successful than previous two rounds

The current round of talks between Iran and world powers began in Istanbul in April, after a 15-month hiatus. Atmospherics were good and signals from both sides were positive, prompting hope that a deal might halt Iran's most sensitive work – enrichment to 20 percent – in exchange for easing sanctions.

But the second round in Baghdad in May ended acrimoniously, as the P5+1 insisted that Iran halt all levels of enrichment – as required by UN Security Council resolutions – and offered no sanctions relief, which Tehran has demanded.

Also crucial for Iran is recognition of its right to enrich uranium, as spelled out in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

In Moscow, Iran detailed its views about the P5+1 package for the first time, but neither side shifted an inch.

"There were more results than in Istanbul and Baghdad, it's a small step forward," says Anton Khlopkov, director of the Center for Energy and Security Studies in Moscow. But as the process unfolds, it is also clear that other issues are at play.

"Many people in Russia understand that nuclear is not the core of the crisis, but [rather] the low level of US-Iran relations," says Mr. Khlopkov, editor of the Nuclear Club journal. "So Russia sees itself as a mediator, but the keys to the problem are in Washington and Tehran. So if those keys are not used, no amount of effort can make a difference."

And after three rounds already this year, it is still not clear how far either side is willing to compromise. After the Moscow talks, both sides publicly portrayed the other as having to make a "choice" for diplomacy and to prove sincere intent.

Russia as mediator

Russia invested some diplomatic capital in the outcome, aware that any breakthrough would be a foreign policy feather in the cap of recently reelected President Vladimir Putin.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited Tehran the week before the talks, and senior officials were very active during negotiations and on the sidelines, trying to prevent a breakdown. Mr. Putin and President Obama also issued a joint statement from the G-20 summit in Mexico, calling on Iran to fulfill its "obligations."

"The Russians feel the Iranians are quite serious," says Vladimir Sotnikov, a senior researcher at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences. "I was in Iran in April and saw myself Iranians suffering high prices ... so they need these negotiations."

Russia is also quite serious about finding a solution, says Mr. Sotnikov. During a conference in the city of Qazvin, the Iranians spoke of an Iran-Russian "strategic partnership" and "said it would be easier to force out outside powers from the region."

Still, the recent history of those ties has fluctuated between hot and cold, sometimes in a matter of days.

The result is less leverage on Iran than other members of the P5+1 might think, says Sotnikov: "Russia has some influence, but not enough to persuade Iran to be compliant with international demands."

"Yes, serious sanctions influence the situation in Iran, but one can't go one making pressure on Iran on and on," says Vladimir Yevseyev, director Russian Center for Socio-Political Studies, who spoke at the press conference. "Now there is talk about economic blockade, then there will be a naval blockade and what will be next? Military action? One can't toughen sanctions forever. It leads us to a dead end."

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