Jane VaynmanRussia, Iran deny uranium ultimatum story

On Tuesday the New York Times ran a story on Russia giving an ultimatum to Iran regarding uranium enrichment. According to the report, Russia has threatened to refuse delivery of nuclear fuel for Bushehr if Iran does not stop uranium enrichment. By Tuesday evening, both the Russian and Iranian governments were denying this account, but that is probably to be expected.

NYT stated that, according to anonymous European, American and Iranian sources, Russia threatened Iran last week during negotiations over Bushehr.

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.

[snip]

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.

The story caught my attention of course, first because it suggests a significant change in the Russian position. Up till now, the Russians have tried very hard to keep the Bushehr project disconnected from the disputes on Iran’s enrichment and possible weapons program. But this news was also interesting because a quick search showed that it is based on NYT’s exclusive sources; all other news stories referenced this one rather than any other direct information.

Later Tuesday evening, the Russian National Security Council issued a statement denying the ultimatum.

“The assertion of the newspaper that the Russian side, as part of Russian-Iranian consultations in Moscow on March 12, supposedly delivered some sort of ultimatum is not true,” Russia’s security council said in a statement.

Iranian officials also denied being given an ultimatum

Ali Husseini Tash, undersecretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, told reporters in Tehran he had not been given the ultimatum in Moscow last week as the newspaper reported.

Iranian officials did meet in Moscow with the secretary of Russia’s national security council, Igor Ivanov, but Husseini Tash said the talks did not involve Iran’s uranium enrichment.

I can think of several reasons why Russia and Iran would jump to deny this story. The negotiating positions could still be flexible, and public talk of an ultimatum would make if difficult for the countries to backtrack to a milder solution. Or, if a threat to link fuel delivery to uranium enrichment was indeed made, but then either Russia backed away or Iran compromised elsewhere, there would be few reasons to reveal that the dispute had escalated beyond previously stated positions.

If Russian officials have interests in preserving their argument that Bushehr work must not fall under sanctions, then they must of course deny that they themselves consider any linkages between the commercial cooperation and Iran’s other nuclear activities.

Finally, agreeing with the U.S. does not seem to go over well in Russia these days. Russia would not want to appear to have given into US pressure, even if its frustration with Iran has indeed grown considerably. At the same time, Iran would doubtfully admit increased isolation from its most important supporter, especially since Russia is, publicly, denying it too.

Comments

  1. yale (History)

    Speculating idly (and wildly)..
    I wonder if the Israelis hinted to the Russians that the LEU shipment might most unexpectedly meet an unfortunate accident in transit.

    The Israelis are well aware that the 80 tons of LEU simplifies and speeds up Iranian HEU acquisition by an order of magnitude and is irreversible.

    Plus the LWR can produce WGPU by an order of magnitude over the alternatives.(In only 8 months, the LWR will create 150 kg of 90% Pu239)

    Shipping accidents happen all the time.

  2. hass (History)

    Thus, again vindicating the position of Iran and other developing nations that they can’t rely on promises of foreign fuel delivery, and so have to have their own enrichment program. Great job.

    “Developing nations say they don’t want to give up their rights to uranium enrichment and don’t trust the United States or other nuclear countries to be consistent suppliers of the nuclear material they would need to run their power plants.”(New Global Order, By Alissa J. Rubin – LA Times Oct 15 2006)

  3. Dick Durata (History)

    “according to anonymous European, American and Iranian sources” means very little, and all roads might lead back to misinformation. The NYT is not picky about sources when they want to push a story. After the denials broke, they had an OP-ED that failed to even mention the denials, which is damning, in my view.

  4. Mark Gubrud (History)

    Yale, I doubt Israel would need to make such a such a threat directly, and if they did it could well backfire.

    Rather, I think the Russians might be thinking carefully and may be wary of taking a step that, as you argue, would change the situation so as to make a more compelling case for US or Israeli military action or, at least, further destabilization.

  5. yale (History)

    Yes, as pointed out, my speculations were idle.. (whilst burning cycles betwixt a couple of pointless meetings)

    Mark, you are correct.
    I should have better phrased it as Israel would point out it has very serious “concerns which must be addressed”, and that the situation would indeed be “destabilized”.

    Israel does view these issues as an actual matter of national existence, and has shown itself to be willing to pay any price to preserve itself.

  6. Siddharth

    The LEU would have been brought in as air cargo, just as the recent Russian LEU shipmment to India came in. No shipping.

  7. yale (History)

    Siddharth…

    I did not mean to imply that TVEL is delivering the fuel by boat (altho a trans-Caspian route works.)

    Last I saw, the fuel is to be shipped in four loads by TVEL’s specially modified transport planes.

    Another idle speculation I have been pondering is the possibility of a totally “accidental” fire at the reactor site, causing a very long term delay (and thus a delay in fuel shipment).

    These are just the type of things that I would not be surprised to see happen.

  8. Binh (History)

    The Russians are trying to avoid another U.S. war in the Middle East by bringing the Iranians to heel. The plus for them is that, if it works, Iran will become more of a Russian client-state than it has been up to now, which would be great for them since they lost all their client states in the energy-rich region when they lost the war in Afghanistan and the USSR collapsed.

    The problem is that Iran desperately needs to develop another source of energy to free up more oil for export (see my latest blog post for how deep and serious their energy crisis will be unless they develop nuclear power). Unless someone – the U.S., Russia, the Europeans – is willing to give them or help them get another source of energy, Iran has no choice but to continue enriching uranium.

    This move is going to backfire when the Iranians don’t cave in. When that happens, it’ll strengthen the position of those in Washington who say “diplomacy has failed” to stop Iran from enriching uranium. Bush has until Jan. 2009 to bomb them. Start the countdown.

  9. lucabrazi (History)

    Or, the Russians are simply engaged in some contract “renegotiations” to up the price (polonium 210 is expensive), leverage more arms purchases, secure for themselves some way to get a handle on PRC inroads into Iran as an oil supplier… If Iran is really worried about energy security the future is first (and easiest) in maximizing oil/gas extraction, storage and transport efficiencies (that’s Western tech) and securing a deal with Russia to supply fuel for the planned reactors (not enough projected reserves in Iran to get them there). Maybe some of this happens if they (or China) pay Russia enough—Moscow has sold more for less. Of course why not paint over all the “death to America” signs, STFU about satan’s great and small, rein in the IRGC and get all the benefits that would come to a powerful, friendly, stable Shia state next door to Iraq. Wouldn’t that piss off the Russians? eh? wink

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