Suspicion Mounts as Deadline Nears; Russia to Sell Iran More Reactors

November 18, 2014

Publication Type: 

  • Policy Briefs


Gary Milhollin and Valerie Lincy

Suspicion about what might come out of the nuclear talks with Iran continued to mount last week, as the talks entered the final days of their planned duration.  Two U.S. Senators, Republican Mark Kirk of Illinois and Democrat Robert Menendez of New Jersey, announced on November 12 their bipartisan intent to impose additional sanctions on Iran if the talks yielded a deal they saw as weak.  In a joint statement, the Senators warned that “a good deal will dismantle, not just stall, Iran’s illicit nuclear program and prevent Iran from ever becoming a threshold nuclear weapons state.”  In addition, they said a good deal would require Iran to accept “stringent limits” on nuclear research and procurement, to “come clean” on nuclear weapon allegations, and to accept “robust” inspections “for decades.”  Their words carried additional weight in light of the recent U.S. election, which gave Republicans control of the Senate as well as the House of Representatives.

A day earlier, on November 11, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a similar warning.  In remarks before the Jewish Federation of North America, Prime Minister Netanyahu said that the United States and its P5+1 partners no longer appeared to be “holding firm and demanding that Iran dismantle its program”; instead they appear willing to rely on “intelligence and inspectors,” which the Prime Minister called “a huge mistake.”

To this (perhaps orchestrated) chorus was joined the surprising voice of the New York Times’ Roger Cohen.  In a column on November 10, he wondered whether President Barack Obama might be trying to rescue the talks by “turning a blind eye” to events in Ukraine.  If the Russians “make nice” on Iran, which would be “helpful in every way,” he feared the White House would be reluctant to “annoy the Russians on Ukraine.”  Thus, a “Ukraine-Iran affair is plausible.” Mr. Cohen’s column followed by only a few days the discovery of a secret letter President Obama had sent to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, which seemed to link the Iran talks to cooperation in fighting the ISIS jihadists in Iraq.  The earlier link seemed to fuel suspicion of a second.

Meanwhile Iran’s nuclear effort continued to progress.  The International Atomic Energy Agency reported on November 7 that Iran had fed uranium for the first time into a more advanced (IR-5) centrifuge for testing.  Iran denied the step violated the interim accord now governing Iran’s research.  In a briefing on November 10, the State Department spokeswoman also refused to call the work a violation, but said that Iran had agreed to stop it in the wake of the controversy. 

In addition, Russia announced an agreement to support a “massive scale-up of Iran’s civilian nuclear program.”  According to a Memorandum of Understanding signed on November 10, Russia’s ROSATOM will build two VVER-type nuclear reactors at the Bushehr nuclear site “in the short-term,” two additional reactors at Bushehr “in the medium-term,” and four VVER-type reactors at a new location.  Under the terms of the agreement, fuel for the new reactors will be supplied by ROSATOM’s fuel subsidiary TVEL and spent fuel from the reactors will be returned to Russia.  However, according to a separate agreement, Russia will work “on the feasibility of assembling fuel bundles” for the reactors in Iran.  In addition, the joint project will “maximize domestic content and services” in the construction and operation of the reactors, with an aim to “bolster skills” in Iran through “education and training, both at universities and among public and private companies.” 

The deal was a clear sign that Russia does not favor isolating Iran.  If the project goes forward, it would enhance Iran’s knowledge of the fuel cycle and could serve as a cover for nuclear procurement.  Further, with a large domestic nuclear power program, it will be impossible to prevent Iran from being a nuclear weapon threshold state.