January 24, 2005

Iran's nuclear ambitions - Western buffer, Eastern bulwark

By Andrew Mason

The powerful EU trio of Britain, France and Germany has attempted to thwart Iran's nuclear progress diplomatically. The US and Israel have threatened pre-emptive strikes against it's nuclear sites. Yet still Iran flaunts any attempt to nullify its nuclear program. Is this because of a deep-seated disregard for the West or is it due to the ongoing technological and diplomatic support Tehran is receiving from Moscow and Beijing?
The answer to this is, probably both.

Promises and Pacts

In late November 2004, Tehran made categoric promises to Britain, France and Germany to freeze their uranium enrichment processes, under the threat of potential trade sanctions, and with the promise of compliance bringing the antithesis of such an eventuality. However, Gholam Reza Aghazadeh, Iran's atomic energy chief, has recently authorised the construction of a facility to produce the gas Anhydrous Hydrogen Flouride (AHF), a gas that can be used to produce highly enriched Uranium. The plant itself is to be built near the town of Isfahan close to one of Iran's many (secret) nuclear sites. Although the gas is not classified as a nuclear technology, and thus potentially not a controlled substance, its use to convert Hydrogen Tetraflouride to Hydrogen Hexaflouride (used in atom bombs) is a contentious point for Jack Straw et al, who hammered out the previous agreement with the Islamic Republic. Iran has constantly deployed delaying tactics in recent months, so as to continue its uranium enrichment processes and has pushed the letter of the deal made with the EU trio to the limit. The accord with the EU trio allowed Iran to finish processing some 37 tonnes of 'yellowcake' uranium that it had already been using to 'test' the conversion facility at Isfahan, and it may do so until February. However the conversion of this amount can produce enough highly enriched uranium for five nuclear weapons. This does not inspire much western confidence in Tehran, and thus a further showdown looks set to take place in the coming months and with the presence of a supportive Russia and China, Iran undoubtedly has a few more cards to play.

Communist Capitalist

Iran's relationship with China is currently growing exponentially, due to the communist's state insatiable energy needs (According to The Washington Post, China's energy needs climbed nearly 40% in the first few months of 2004). Iran is therefore meeting China's energy needs in return for access to China's large scale and low-cost manufacturing industry, as well as the obligatory support for nuclear co-operation.

China is currently Iran's second largest export partner and third largest import partner, and with the contracts that are currently on the table, these positions are soon to be bettered.

In July 2004, Iranian parliamentary speaker Gholam-Ali Haddad Adel was very complimentary of the Sino-Iranian relationship. In particular he highlighted China's support for the Iranian nuclear programs. This aside, Iran also has unfettered access to the improving technology being developed and utilised by the PLA. According to the IAEA, China has probably provided nuclear technology to Iran, this coupled with Washington's need to pressure China not to sell large quantities of AHF to Iran in 2000, as well as rumours that Beijing may have also sold a blueprint for a facility to produce highly enriched uranium to Iran as part of the same deal, one must question the Sino-Iranian relationship and the possible future ramifications of continuing nuclear co-operation between said states.

Russia Bears all

China's nuclear support for Iran may be a well-known secret. Russia's transferral of nuclear technology to Iran, however, is no secret, is well known, is continuous and above all, is increasing. The Iranian nuclear plant at Bushehr is being built by the Russian company Atomstroiexport (Russia's sole exporter of nuclear technology), a company which recently sold a controlling stake to Gazprombank, a subsidiary of the giant state owned gas company, Gazprom. The chairman of Gazprom also happens to be Putin's chief of staff, Dmitry Medvedev.

Russia's leaders also have their fingers in other Tehran pies. TVEL, Russia's sole nuclear trader, which, according to Interfax, recently appointed a close aide of President Vladimir Putin's as its new chairman, is about to agree a deal with Tehran that would supply nuclear fuel to the Bushehr reactor.

Russia, unlike China, could be seen as being quite open in its dealings with Iran.
Although Iranian President, Khatami recently applauded the relationship between Moscow and Tehran with regard to nuclear energy, calling it "…positive.", Russia is remaining steadfast in its position that, as Iran is part of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, it has every right to pursue nuclear energy for peaceful means. This is fair and true, however, some believe that some of the more benign nuclear exports to Iran have dual-usage.
With Iran's nuclear pursuit, Russia is not fairing too badly economically. The Bushehr plant brought in $800 million from the Iranians and a contract for a further seven generating units is being planned. A deal that could be worth up to $10 billion to the Russians is a deal that cannot be refused easily even under pressure from Washington.

Russo-Chinese Bulwark

The Chinese have reasons for their pro Iranian stance other than the import of Iranian energy. Politically, they are not pro the westernisation of the Middle East. Diplomatically they are not friends with the Iranian enemies. They have an aggressive stance with the US re Taiwan and they are not best of friends with Israel, after the latters welching on defence contracts. In fact December saw a large deterioration in diplomatic relations between China and Israel that culminated in the Chinese deputy Prime Minister, Tang Jiaxuan, flying to Jerusalem to demand the immediate return of an unspecified number of Israeli-built Harpy unmanned aerial attack vehicles, that were sent back to Israel for upgrading, and have since been confiscated by the Israelis under pressure from Washington.. The Deputy Prime Minister even suggested that this episode could prove disastrous for Israeli firms operating in China (including Hong Kong). It is probable that no small amount of pressure from the US will be sufficient to sway China away from continuing its nuclear co-operation with Iran.

Russia as well may be difficult to dissuade.
During a press conference in October 2004, Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov stated that Russia does not support the idea of referring Iran to the United Nations for sanctions and will continue nuclear co-operation with Iran.
Moscow has been seen to pressure Iran on its nuclear activities, however the British and the US see the Russian pressure as somewhat aesthetic rather than for a means to a peaceful end. Why is Russia aiding Iran in achieving its nuclear ambitions? There is the obvious answer that such hugely beneficial contracts aid the Russian economy. But there must be another reason. Is it geopolitical? Would a westernised Iran be detrimental to the Russians? Could a pro west Iranian government drag other Middle East countries towards the west?

Either way the push for a pro-west and 'democratised' Middle East is not in either Russia's or China's best interests. By acting as a bulwark in Iran's nuclear development, these two powerful states could be seen to be creating a buffer to US aspirations in the region.

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