Russian officials are taking a tougher stand on Iran's nuclear program. They are expressing concerns about its true intent and urging Iran to sign an additional protocol to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.
The United States has called for Iran to allow international inspections, fearing it is using Russian technology and expertise to develop a secret nuclear weapons program - a charge Iran and Russia have denied.
Reports from this week's G-8 Summit in France said Russia had promised to stop selling nuclear material to Iran. Russian officials will not confirm that, and they say their nuclear cooperation with Iran will continue.
But Russian President Vladimir Putin indicated twice during the week that the Russian and U.S. positions on Iran are closer than they might seem.
As recently as one month ago, Russian officials were asking for proof that Iran was using its atomic energy program as a cover to develop nuclear weapons.
Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Losyukov told visiting Undersecretary of State John Bolton that very sound evidence was needed to prove claims by the International Atomic Energy Agency that Iran possessed material that could be used to enrich uranium to weapons grade. At the same time, Mr. Losyukov admitted that there were still some uncertainties about Iran's nuclear program.
The Moscow Director of the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, Yevgeni Volk, says it appears those uncertainties have moved to center stage. He also characterized the shift in Russia's position on Iran as significant, but flexible, and he said it is at least in part designed to repair Russian-U.S. relations damaged by Russia's opposition to the war in Iraq.
"I believe that in order to reconcile George W. Bush of the United States after Russia's nasty behavior regarding Iraq, and in order to get Congress[ional] approval to remove [the] Jackson-Vanik amendment, now Russia shows its constructive attitude toward Iran. But later on, it can change by saying that there is no evidence about Iran's [nuclear] military ambitions," Mr. Volk said.
The Jackson-Vanik amendment to which Mr. Volk refers was passed in 1974 and links bilateral trade issues to freedom of emigration, in particular Jewish emigration, from the Soviet Union.
At the Moscow office of the Washington-based Center for Defense Information, director Ivan Safranchuk agrees that Russia's current position on Iran is "delicate."
"Right now there are some questions about Russian-Iranian relations which [President] Putin is not ready to answer. And that is why I would suggest this means that he will try to preserve the status quo as it is now, without huge changes. [Additional] shifts in his position are possible because we have contradictions in Russian-Iranian relations," he said.
Mr. Safranchuk notes there have been urgent appeals by the United States for Russia to end its technology sales to Iran on the grounds that the transfers add significantly to Iran's ability to develop nuclear weapons. He said Russia would very much like to get the one billion dollars that is the value of its main nuclear contract with Iran, construction of a nuclear plant at the Iranian town of Bushehr on the Persian Gulf. But he said Russia does not want to risk its relations with the United States over the deal.
Mr. Safranchuk also notes that Russia has said it will trade in nuclear material only with nations that adhere to international protocols. But he said that does not necessarily signal an irreversible change in Russian policy toward Iran.
Aside from the value of Russia's nuclear deals with Iran, another factor limiting President Putin's ability get tough, as President Bush would like, is support for Iran in the Russian political and military establishment.
Yevgeni Volk of the Heritage Foundation said because this is a parliamentary election year in Russia, President Putin may find it politically difficult to move any closer to the U.S. position on Iran. "The Russian nuclear complex is very powerful and very interested in continuing nuclear cooperation with Iran and, indeed, it will be of course a very serious obstacle on the way to implementation of the statement by Russian President Vladimir Putin. I mean the Atomic Energy Ministry of course will do its best to lobby its interests, and its multi-billion dollar deals with Iran to continue construction of Bushehr, and I believe it will not be an easy task for Mr. Putin to fulfill his promise," Mr. Volk said.
President Putin and other Russian officials appear to believe the best solution is for Iran to abide by the rules of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov recently said as much.
"We believe it would be a very important step to remove the concerns of the international community as regards nuclear programs in Iran," he said.
Iran has so far refused such requests. But for the short term, Russian officials, like Mr. Ivanov, said they are expecting Iran to take steps to ease fears about its nuclear program in time for a meeting of the IAEA's board of governors on June 16. If Iran does not take those steps, Russian officials will have a difficult decision to make on whether to defy the United States and continue helping Iran with its nuclear program.