Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Russia, Iran Move Toward Showdown with US

In EDM, Pavel Felgenhauer discusses the finalizing of work on Iran's Bushehr nuclear power reactor. Although the reactor will produce thousands of tons of plutonium, this will consist of an isotope mix from which it would not be easy to construct bombs. Iran has all the technology needed to enrich uranium but, as Felgenhauer points out, it doen't have enough uranium to enrich.
The arrival of the Russian nuclear fuel may drastically change the situation: By diverting a relatively small fraction of the 100 tons of the 4% enriched uranium 235 fuel, the Iranians could dramatically speed up their nuclear program and produce hundreds of kilos of arms-grade uranium (over 90% enrichment) in a year or so, using a limited amount of enrichment centrifuges. It is technically much easier to move from 4% to 90% enrichment, than from 0.7% as in natural uranium, to 4% and a nuclear weapon requires only 20 kilos of arms-grade uranium to make.

Washington has already told Russia that, while the continued slow construction of Bushehr is OK, the actual transfer of nuclear fuel without a comprehensive solution of the Iranian nuclear problem is unacceptable. Will the Russians heed this warning? While in Palestine on September 8, Foreign Minster Sergei Lavrov angrily told a news conference that it is "a clear provocation" to suggest that Russia may stop constructing Bushehr and move its specialists out (RIA-Novosti, September 8, 2006).

The pro-Kremlin news site Strana.ru reported on September 11 that Russia will not only sell Iran modern anti-aircraft Tor-M1 missiles (a billion-dollar deal announced last November), but also provide more powerful, longer range S300 anti-aircraft missiles and other modern weapons "needed to defend Bushehr and other strategic targets" against possible U.S. air and missile attacks.

It is obvious that at least part of the ruling Russian elite is ready to openly side with Iran against the United States, to block the imposition of any sanctions in the United Nations while providing Tehran with modern weapons and nuclear materials. But will Russia's ultimate decision-maker, President Vladimir Putin, risk a showdown? Up to now Putin has opted to postpone a decision, which has meant Bushehr has also been postponed. But the time for pondering is rapidly running out, and Washington and Tehran are both pressing for a clear answer -- something Putin always hates to give.


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