Once again Russians have reneged on their commitment to supply more than 200 tons of low enriched uranium (LEU) for the Bushehr nuclear power plant reactor. Based on numerous discussions between officials from Moscow and Tehran in the past several months, it was believed that by the end of March 2007 the necessary LEU fuel would be shipped to the southern Iranian city of Bushehr in order to meet one of the critical milestones for this highly overdue project.
But contrary to what Iranian officials had expected, Russians dragged their feet once again, as they had done repeatedly in the past 8 years. This time they complained about not getting paid their monthly installment of $25 million or so that they were promised. This unconvincing excuse raises a few serious questions and observations that demonstrate Russians are not reliable partners, and Iran should realize that as long as they have not suspended enrichment activity, the Bushehr fuel will not be delivered. It seems that Russians are not willing to decouple Bushehr project from Iran’s inalienable rights to enrich uranium, and continue to mislead the Iranians officials.
Why would Iran delay payments for such a showcase project that they have been waiting to complete for years, in particular for such a meager payment dispute when they just dispensed $700 million to purchase a Russian missile defense system? Iranians are claiming that they have payment receipts for the most recent installments of the reactor project. Even assuming that Iran did not honor their payment commitment, why should Russia refuse to proceed with the fuel delivery? After all there are still a few critical steps left before this reactor which is 96% completed becomes operational.
Iran has to pay additional installments to the Russians before generating any electricity from Bushehr. If delivered, the fuel would be under the auspices of the IAEA at all times while waiting for the start of the reactor. Moreover, unless the fuel rods are irradiated, which only happens when the reactor begins operation, there will be no chance of any diversions to weapon grade plutonium. Thus, this delay is not a rational one from business or nuclear proliferation points of view. It is purely a political decision to secure Russia’s relationship with US.
One of the advantages of the delivery of this fuel, in addition to making substantial progress towards decades old dream of nuclear power generation in Iran, is that Bushehr had to be removed from the target list of US aerial attacks. Simply because the catastrophic environmental risks associated with the destruction of this reactor would have been unacceptable for US allies in the Persian Gulf. Hence, because of Russia’s refusal to deliver the fuel one has to believe that Bushehr is back on the target list and will stay there as long as Iran has not succumbed to the wishes of the Security Council for permanent suspension of enrichment activity.
Under these circumstances, it is natural for hardliners in Iran to cry wolf about lack of confidence in the nuclear fuel supply for power generation from the international community if they abandon domestic nuclear fuel enrichment facility. Will the current impasse with Russia be repeated under another condition? For instance, even if Iran suspends enrichment activity but continues the support of Shiite insurgencies and Palestinian factions, will she run into another delay for the completion of Bushehr reactor because of additional pressure from US?
Will Iranian support for Islamic movements in the Newly Independent States territories of the former Soviet Union, constitute another delay for delivering nuclear fuel for Bushehr? Or will the delivery of the fuel be contingent on Iran buying more antiquated commercial Tupolov aircrafts from Russia? When and where is the stopping point for the Russian’s shrewdness for further milking Iran.
The dangerous game of the Russian Roulette is not exciting anymore; the world is witnessing another nasty game being developed by Russians: It is the “Russian Blackmail,” it is not a “board” game but rather it’s a “table” game played on the negotiation table between desperate Iranians and shrewd Russians.
Given the current state of affairs, the future of Bushehr project seems bleak, unless Russia begins to honor their contractual obligations, independent of UN sanctions on Iran.
Nader Bagherzadeh, is a Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the University of California, Irvine. He has been following Iran’s nuclear issues, and given talks and written articles on that subject.