AP: When President Vladimir Putin visits Tehran this week, he will be closely watched for any sign he has moved closer to launching the nuclear reactor Russia is building for Iran. The Associated Press
By VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV
MOSCOW (AP) When President Vladimir Putin visits Tehran this week, he will be closely watched for any sign he has moved closer to launching the nuclear reactor Russia is building for Iran.
Russia has resisted the U.S. push for stronger sanctions against Tehran and strongly warned Washington against using force in its standoff with Iran over its nuclear program. But Moscow’s position is carefully hedged. It has delayed completing the plant, Iran’s first, and is urging the country to comply with international controls on its nuclear activities.
Any show of support for Iran, such as a pledge by Putin to quickly complete the power plant, could embolden Iran and further cloud Russia’s relations with the West.
Putin bluntly spelled out his disagreements with Washington on Wednesday, saying he saw no “objective data” to prove Western claims that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons. And at talks Friday with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, he ridiculed U.S. plans for a missile defense system in eastern Europe, supposedly to stop an Iranian attack.
His bluntness appeared to shock Rice and Gates.
Putin’s visit, during which he will meet with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and attend Tuesday’s summit of Caspian Sea nations, is a first. No Kremlin leader has traveled to Iran since Josef Stalin in 1943, for a wartime summit with Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Putin’s trip is important for Iran even if it yields no agreements. “It’s a break in international isolation, a chance to show that Iran is an important country,” said Alexander Pikayev, a leading expert on Iran with Russia’s Institute for World Economy and International relations.
But it will highlight a reality sometimes overlooked by a world focused on the West’s confrontation with Iran: that the Kremlin also has its problems with the Islamic republic.
Although Russia has shielded Iran from harsher sanctions in the U.N. Security Council, its relations with Tehran have been hurt by disputes over the $1 billion deal to build the nuclear plant. Russia warned earlier this year that the plant in the port of Bushehr wouldn’t be launched this fall as planned the latest in a series of delays because Iran was slow in making payments. It has also delayed the shipment of uranium fuel for the plant.
Anxious to ease Western doubts and possibly its own about Iran’s intentions, the Kremlin made Tehran sign a deal several years ago to return the fuel to Russia after its use so it cannot be used in weapons.
Iranian officials deny being late with payments and accuse the Kremlin of yielding to Western pressure. Iran has started its own enrichment program, saying it wants to produce fuel by itself an effort that has heightened international suspicions. Iran insists that its program is meant purely to generate electricity.
Low-enriched uranium is used to fuel nuclear power plants. Highly enriched uranium can be used to build nuclear weapons.
The upshot is a slew of mutual suspicions, says Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor of Russia in Global Affairs magazine.
“Tehran views Russia as an unreliable partner that uses Iran in its game with the West,” he told The Associated Press. “Iran has been very difficult to deal with and the Kremlin has felt strong irritation about it.”
Putin’s Tehran trip has repeatedly been postponed, as has the launch of the nuclear plant.
Moscow has said fuel delivery will start six months before the plant goes on line, but it keeps delaying the launch date, citing the payment dispute.
Some analysts think Putin may use the summit to pledge to complete the plant next year.
“It requires political will to turn the launch key at Bushehr, and there is no reason to think that Russia lacks it,” said Vladimir Orlov, the head of PIR Center, a think tank specializing in nuclear issues.
Other analysts predict Russia’s balancing act will continue, to avoid angering either Iran or the West.
Moscow has said repeatedly it doesn’t want a nuclear-armed Iran, and has urged Tehran to freeze uranium enrichment and answer international inspectors’ queries about its nuclear program.
Vyacheslav Kantor, a Russian businessman who is president of the European Jewish Congress, said the Kremlin is bent on preventing Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
“We feel the intentions are very strong and positive,” he said, voicing hope that Putin could persuade Tehran to meet international demands.
Meanwhile, senior diplomats of the U.N. Security Council’s five veto-wielding permanent members, joined by Germany, are giving Iran until November to show a positive response to questions about its nuclear program or face tougher sanctions. Permanent members Russia and China agreed to two previous sanctions resolutions but have cold-shouldered the effort by the U.S., Britain and France to impose harsher measures.
If Putin’s trip to Iran doesn’t yield answers to where the Kremlin is headed on the Iranian nuclear issue, next month’s dealings at the U.N. may fill in some of the blanks.