One unnamed U.S. official observes: “We”re not sure what mix of commercial and political motives are at play here, but clearly the Russians and the Iranians are getting on each other’s nerves “” and that’s not all bad.” Indeed. “Russia Gives Iran Ultimatum on Enrichment,” by Elaine Sciolino for the New York Times:
PARIS, March 19 “” Russia has informed Iran that it will withhold nuclear fuel for Iran’s nearly completed Bushehr power plant unless Iran suspends its uranium enrichment as demanded by the United Nations Security Council, European, American and Iranian officials say.
The ultimatum was delivered in Moscow last week by Igor S. Ivanov, the secretary of the Russian National Security Council, to Ali Hosseini Tash, Iran’s deputy chief nuclear negotiator, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because a confidential diplomatic exchange between two governments was involved.
For years, President Bush has been pressing President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to cut off help to Iran on the nuclear power plant that Russia is building at Bushehr, in southern Iran. But Mr. Putin has resisted. The project is Tehran’s first serious effort to produce nuclear energy and has been very profitable for Russia.
Recently, however, Moscow and Tehran have been engaged in a public argument about whether Iran has paid its bills, which may explain Russia’s apparent shift. But the ultimatum may also reflect an increasing displeasure and frustration on Moscow’s part with Iran over its refusal to stop enriching uranium at its vast facility at Natanz.
“We”re not sure what mix of commercial and political motives are at play here,” one senior Bush administration official said in Washington. “But clearly the Russians and the Iranians are getting on each other’s nerves “” and that’s not all bad.”
A senior European official said: “We consider this a very important decision by the Russians. It shows that our disagreements with the Russians about the dangers of Iran’s nuclear program are tactical. Fundamentally, the Russians don’t want a nuclear Iran.”
At a time of growing tensions between Washington and Moscow, American officials are welcoming Russian support on the situation with Iran as a sign that there are still areas in which the two powers can cooperate.
Russia has been deeply reluctant to ratchet up sanctions against Iran in the Security Council, which is expected to vote on a new set of penalties against the country within the next week.
But American officials have been trying to create a commercial incentive for Russia to put pressure on Iran. One proposal the Bush administration has endorsed since late 2005 envisions having the Russians enrich Iran’s uranium in Russia. That creates the prospect of tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in business for Russia, and a way to ensure that Iran receives only uranium enriched for use in power reactors, instead of for use in weapons.
Iran has rejected those proposals, saying it has the right to enrich uranium on its own territory.
The Russian Atomic Energy Agency, or Rosatom, is eager to become a major player in the global nuclear energy market. As Security Council action against Iran has gained momentum and Iran’s isolation increases, involvement with the Bushehr project may detract from Rosatom’s reputation.
In a flurry of public comments in the past month, Russian officials acknowledged that Russia was delaying the delivery of fuel to the reactor in the Iranian port city of Bushehr. It blamed the decision on the failure of Iran to pay what it owes on the project, not on concerns about nuclear proliferation.
But last month, Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov informed some European officials that Russia had made a political decision not to deliver the fuel, adding that Russia would state publicly that the sole reason was financial, European officials said.
And then last week, a senior Iranian official confirmed in an interview that Mr. Ivanov had threatened Iran with an ultimatum: The fuel would be delivered only after Iran’s enrichment of uranium at Natanz was frozen.
Members of the Security Council are moving toward a vote this week on a draft resolution imposing further sanctions on Iran for its defiance of demands that it suspend enrichment activities and return to negotiations over its nuclear program.