MOSCOW—Russia is standing on a small and shrinking patch of middle ground as it tries to protect its huge business relationship with Iran while finding a diplomatic resolution for U.S. and European concerns that Iran has a secret nuclear-weapons program.
Russia opposes the spread of nuclear weapons, but it's building Iran its first nuclear-power plant and this year plans to deliver 29 short-range, Tor M-1 anti-aircraft missiles to the Iranian government, all over U.S. objections.
The Kremlin sees no harm in its delicate and, some say, dangerous position of cooperating with Iran on civilian nuclear energy and supplying it with defensive weapons.
But tougher choices face Russia if no negotiated breakthrough is found to ease concerns that an increasingly defiant Iran is trying to acquire nuclear weapons under cover of its nuclear energy program.
Russian diplomacy has failed so far to convince Iran to stop enriching uranium in compliance with Friday's deadline, set by the United Nations Security Council, for the Islamic Republic to suspend enrichment and answer all questions from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog.
Russia has offered to enrich uranium for Iran, something the United States supports. But Iranian leaders effectively have spurned the offer.
"Russia is torn. It is not playing some kind of game. They'd actually like to defuse the crisis," said Victor Mizin, a Russian arms-control expert. "More and more in the Russian leadership are concerned about Iran going nuclear. They understand where the nuclear potential will be targeted: against U.S. military assets and U.S. allies. They don't want this hotbed."
Before considering the American push for economic sanctions, however, Russia wants proof from the IAEA, which will issue a report Friday, that Iran is trying to build a nuclear weapon. The IAEA has said it hasn't seen any diversion of nuclear material for a weapons program, but adds that after three years of inspections Iran still hasn't answered all the agency's questions.
Iranian leaders say they're mastering the uranium-enrichment process to produce fuel for nuclear-generated electricity. The same process can be used to produce highly enriched uranium for weapons.
In searching for a solution, plenty is at stake for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
He wants to be seen as an effective partner with the West on nuclear nonproliferation ahead of July's Group of Eight meeting. The Kremlin also wants to preserve its trade links with Iran, even as the radical rhetoric of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stokes international fears.
If no solution to the standoff is found before the G-8 leaders gather, U.S. representatives have promised to make the stalemate the leading issue of the Putin-hosted summit in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Mizin, a visiting fellow at the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington, said the five veto-wielding Security Council nations—Russia, the United States, France, Britain and China—should change course and allow Iran to carry out small-scale enrichment for nuclear reactors.
In exchange, Mizin said, Iran must agree to a strict ban on all nuclear-weapons activity, enforced by tough international inspections.
"Having invested billions of dollars in a very clandestine program for nuclear research, it is obvious Iranians would like to keep some kind of uranium-enrichment potential," Mizin said.
Alexei Arbatov, the director of the Center for International Security in Moscow, said the U.S. position that Iran mustn't be allowed to enrich uranium was no longer valid, now that Iran claimed earlier this month already to have produced low-level enriched uranium.
"The better option is to let Iran retain what it has now," Arbatov said. If Iran violates any new agreement, he predicted, "then sanctions and military force will not be vetoed by Russia."
While Russia has rejected any military option, some think the Kremlin's position on economic sanctions is more flexible, although sacrificing trade with Iran would be tough.
Russia is building an $800 million nuclear reactor in Iran's southern Persian Gulf city of Bushehr. The much-delayed project is scheduled for completion this year. Iran also wants to build several more nuclear-power plants and Russia is hoping for those contracts.
Viktor Mikhailov, Russia's nuclear energy minister from 1992 to 1998, said Russian scientists who were working to provide Iran with nuclear energy "will not allow the setup of any military-oriented technologies."
While Russia says it will honor a $700 million contract to supply Iran with short-range anti-aircraft missiles, it says it has limited military sales to defensive weapons since the early 1990s, when it reportedly sold 40 MiG-29 jet fighters, three kilo-class submarines and other conventional arms to Iran.
Suspicions about Iran's nuclear aims are heightened by its Shahab-3 missiles, which are capable of carrying nuclear warheads more than 800 miles, and its interest in developing longer-range missiles.
(Bonner is a reporter for the St. Paul Pioneer Press.)
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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