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Russia’s worrying involvement in Iran’s nuclear program

Quietly, in southwestern Iran, something is taking place that risks destabilizing any number of the world’s political fault lines. Ostensibly with a mission to construct two nuclear reactors, Russian companies are providing hard and soft technical support to Iran’s nuclear ambitions. As the activity continues, the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant — the site of Iran’s first commercial nuclear reactor — is once again at the center of questions about the nature of the regime’s nuclear plans. 

After years of painstakingly precarious negotiations, Iran and six international mediators (the five permanent UN Security Council members — Russia, the UK, China, the US and France — plus Germany) agreed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015. Known as the Iran nuclear deal, it has come into jeopardy since the White House sought to renege on its promises, unsatisfied with Iran’s compliance and the enforceability of the agreement. However, more damningly, Russia’s almost immediate involvement in Iran’s nuclear program after the deal was signed is also putting the entire concept of the agreement in jeopardy. 

Spectacularly, in September 2016, Iran and Russia signed an agreement to begin the second phase of construction of the Bushehr plant, which would see two more 1,000 megawatt reactors added at the site, with a further six in the pipeline. Russia’s involvement at Bushehr is not new: The project was launched in 1975 under the shah’s government, but it ground to a halt after the Islamic revolution following the withdrawal of German manufacturers.

Russia’s nuclear construction company Atomstroyexport took over the project in the 1990s and now Rosatom and its subsidiary ASE are engaged. The head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Ali Akbar Salehi, announced in March that his country had started constructing two new nuclear power plants, Bushehr-2 and Bushehr-3. Costing more than $8.5 billion and again built with Russian assistance, the announcement reflected the growing scope of the bilateral cooperation.

Such has been the success of Iran’s nuclear program since the signing of the JCPOA that, earlier this month, President Hassan Rouhani publicly unveiled 114 new achievements in nuclear technology at an exhibition marking the National Day of Nuclear Technology. He declared: “You are completely mistaken if you think you can prevent Iran from making progress in the area of nuclear technology. What have you (the US) achieved with your sanctions? If you want to limit Iran’s military power, you know that we have developed missiles since last year that you wouldn’t even imagine.”

Such pronouncements are particularly worrying since they come at a time when Iran has claimed that its nuclear activity is for civilian purposes and will provide 10 percent of the country’s electricity once these plants come online. Furthermore, Iran has simultaneously sought the acquiescence of the UN Security Council to obtain enriched uranium for civilian nuclear power directly from Russia. In theory, this would obviate the need for Iran to enrich uranium, which many fear could be used to create fuel for nuclear weapons, on its own soil. Therefore, how far Russian support goes is of great concern to Tehran’s neighbors and should be of even greater concern to the JCPOA signatories.

Following Russian and Iranian agreements furthering their cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy at Bushehr, the international community must act. The construction of the two new nuclear power plants has begun in the southern city of Bushehr, posing a clear threat to Iran’s neighbors and the wider international community, as a nuclear-powered Iran would exacerbate existing tensions.

The effects of Russian cooperation on increasing Iran’s nuclear capability must be brought to the attention of international partners so as to bring about an eventual disengagement. This is especially important given Russia is a signatory to the JCPOA, and any potential circumvention of it or indeed its support of Iran, leading to unintended consequences, could spell disaster for international efforts to work with Iran as opposed to against it.

There is, however, another very important consideration. Recent natural disasters in and around Bushehr have brought to light the danger that Iranian nuclear activity brings to the wider Gulf and Arabian Sea. In the most water-scarce region of the world, a nuclear disaster at Bushehr would have significant ecological consequences.

While diplomacy should take center stage in efforts to constrain Iran’s future nuclear capabilities, diplomacy alone is not enough. Iranians say they will remain in the JCPOA as long as they receive the economic benefits they are entitled to under the terms of the agreement. They are waiting to see how much revenue they can preserve from oil exports and how effective the Europeans and others will be in protecting Iran’s commercial links to the world. It is, therefore, critical that a mutually beneficial arrangement be sought and that short-term Russian goals do not jeopardize the longer-term benefits of limiting Iran’s ambitions.
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