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Dec 13, 2007 | 17:32 GMT

3 mins read

Iran, Russia: The Bushehr Card

BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images
Iran and Russia have settled their differences on Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant, and a timetable on the project's completion will be announced at the end of December, Atomstroiexport President Sergei Shmatko announced Dec. 13. Shmatko added that the fuel for Bushehr, which is prepared for delivery, will make its way to Iran about six months before the plant's startup. "As this theme is too politicized we have decided not to announce the date of delivery of fuel," Shmatko said, "You'll hear of the fact of delivery when it's delivered." The Bushehr saga dates back to 1995. The project was supposed to be wrapped up by 1999 and has been ready since late 2004, but Russia has strung Iran along strategically with complaints about financing and delays in equipment shipments to serve its own diplomatic needs. By holding the key to Bushehr, Russia can draw the line between an Iranian nuclear bluff and a real Iranian nuclear threat. Once the "on" switch is flipped, Bushehr could give Tehran the ability to generate large amounts of plutonium for a weapons program. This latest announcement on Bushehr comes during a visit by Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki to Moscow. STRATFOR expected Bushehr to be the focal point of that visit, as the Iranians are seeking added leverage from the Russians before they dive into another round of negotiations with the United States over Iraq. But the Iranians are unlikely to be satisfied by Shmatko's timetable announcement. They have heard that line before (the last time was in early September), and they are well aware of Russia's love for rhetoric. The recent U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) about-face on Iran's nuclear ambitions has opened the door for an Iranian-American rapprochement, but it also robbed Tehran of its nuclear bargaining chip. If Iran wanted to regain the threat of a nuclear weapons program to use in its negotiations with Washington, it would need the Russians to come through on Bushehr. The Russians need to play the Bushehr card carefully, though. On one hand, Moscow would love to wreck Washington's diplomatic offensive with the Iranians by recharging the Iranian nuclear threat and spinning up the Israelis, who have already been put on edge by the NIE report. On the other hand, the last thing Russia wants is a nuclear-capable Iran in the neighborhood. And given the circumstances in Iraq, there is no guarantee that progress on Bushehr would sabotage a U.S.-Iranian meeting of the minds. The problem for Moscow is that Bushehr is one of the last significant cards it can play against the United States. And after Washington rebuffed Russia on Dec. 13 by closing the door to further negotiations on Kosovo, the Russians need a good counterattack. But while Moscow can issue a slew of statements about how absolutely committed it is to completing the Bushehr project, it has become more apparent that the Bushehr card is losing its value.

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