Russia has helped Iran to build a nuclear power plant and has agreed to supply plutonium to fuel it. The United States is opposed to the deal because the spent fuel can be used to manufacture weapons-grade plutonium.
Under the accord between Russia and Iran signed in February, Russia will supply nearly 100 tons of nuclear fuel for the massive plutonium reactor it helped build near the southwestern Iranian city of Bushehr. Iran has agreed to return spent nuclear fuel rods to Russia to ensure they will not be converted for military use. But Ilan Berman, an analyst at the American Foreign Policy Council, says the Bushehr power plant is only a public face for a more comprehensive Iranian nuclear program.
“What the Russians are doing with Iran in Bushehr is very much a footnote to the larger Iranian development effort, says Mr. Berman. "That development effort is moving forward as a result of the assistance of Russian scientists and the help that Russia has provided in the past to the Iranian nuclear program. But the Bushehr facility is in many ways the smokescreen for this because Busher will be, more than anything else in the nuclear program, subject to international scrutiny. But other facilities where cooperation is going on will not.”
Mr. Berman says the nuclear program is just one aspect of a growing Russo-Iranian entente. In the past two years, he notes, the two countries have increased their political, economic and cultural ties. And now, says Mr. Berman, Teheran is interested in forming a cooperative “rapid reaction force” with Russia as a way of securing the stability of the oil-rich region.
“The alliance when it started more than a decade ago, was very much a marriage of convenience. It was spurred by the Iranians on one side, who were trying to reconstitute their military after the Iran-Iraq war, and the Russian on the other, who were worried that unless they engage Iran, Iran will be likely to support radical Islamist movements in the southern rim in the Caucasus in central Asia.”
Ilan Berman says both countries have been concerned about U-S military bases in central Asia and are determined to prevent the United States from gaining influence near the Caspian Sea. And he says Russia has relaxed its stance towards Iranian efforts to build closer ties with mostly Muslim central Asian states.
“Over the last year, you are seeing a real upsurge in the political and strategic ties that Iran is building with countries like Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. This is a new development. Traditionally, they have ceded leadership in that region to Russia,” says Ilan Berman.
Iran is actively seeking other alliances in the Caspian region, notably with Azerbaijan and Armenia, but also in the Middle East, Latin America and Asia. It is also buying nuclear technology from other countries, which Russia cannot control. Many analysts say an Iran with too much sway in the region is not in Russia’s interest.
Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East analysts and author of the new book Iran’s Developing Military Capabilities, says “There is no element today of any meaningful military cooperation between Iran and Russia. There is a basic ideological difference between the two countries over the role that Russia has played in dealing with Islamist movements in Central Asia and groups like the Chechens. Certainly, Russia has no support for Iran’s theocracy. And Iran’s theocracy knows that Russia is much more tied to the secular West.”
Anthony Cordesman says there have always been alliances of convenience in the Caspian region and the Russo-Iranian one is no threat to the United States. But, he adds, an Iran with nuclear arms could be.
“And people who talk about accepting Iran’s nuclear status often do not address the issue of nuclear status to do what? How are these weapons to be used? How are they to be deployed? Are they going to be in a large force that can be launched on warning or launched under attack? Are they going to be hidden somewhere? What is Iran’s doctrine? It seems doubtful that Iran, if it openly had nuclear weapons, would simply sit and not attempt to use them diplomatically or in terms of strategic influence.”
Some analysts say the United States has focused too much on the nuclear issue, missing other potentially dangerous developments. Ilan Berman says Iran is forming anti-American alliances around the world and is supporting terrorist groups, such as Hamas and Hezbollah, in order to undermine the success of the U-S strategy in the Middle East and Central Asia.
“A year ago, they signed a mutual defense agreement with the Syrian government, they just signed a mutual defense agreement with the Azeri government, and part of that agreement says that Azerbaijan will not host any foreign troops on its soil. So what they are doing is they are trying to create a regional environment that would allow an expansionist and aggressive [Iranian] foreign policy agenda, but also a regional environment that’s very inhospitable to the United States.”
Many observers say the United States should place more emphasis on the regional stability in the Caspian basin. They say a more democratic Iran, one that has respect for human rights, would pose less of a threat to regional peace even if it did develop nuclear weapons.
This report was broadcast on the VOA Focus program. To hear more Focus stories, please click here.