Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Russia gives Iran Ultimatum over Enrichment?

Moscow has told Iran that it will hold back enriched uranium fuel for the Bushehr nuclear power station if the country refuses to end its uranium enrichment programme, in accord with demands from the United Nations Security Council. This ultimatum was given by the secretary of the Russian National Security Council, Igor Ivanov, to the Iranian deputy chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Hosseini Tash. The veracity of this report in the New York Times is however denied by Mr Tash, which is significant because he is also deputy secretary of the Iranian Supreme National Security Council, who said on state radio on Tuesday: "No, I deny this news and the situation was completely the other way round. Mr Ivanov was trying to convince us that these issued are not related" - meaning that there is no connection between the matter of providing nuclear fuel for Bushehr and the UN demand that Iran suspend its uranium enrichment programme.

The US State Department remains non-committal on the whole business, but "a senior European official" is quoted as saying, "We consider this a very important decision by the Russians (obviously believing the story). It shows that our disagreements with the Russians about the dangers of Iran's nuclear programme are tactical. Fundamentally the Russians don't want a nuclear Iran." If that is true, there may be a number of reasons for why not. Many people fear that if Iran persists in contravening the wishes of the UN, the US may impose sanctions against them or indeed resort to military action, thus effectively extending the war-zone from its neighbour, Iraq. How the world could impose sanctions on Iran, say in terms of refusing to buy its oil, is not easy to envisage especially in view of the unquenchable thirst for the oil from this, the world's fourth largest producer of the commodity, from both East and West. China probably would not join-in the imposition of any sanctions, which would remain a restriction for the West, unless the waterways for its carriage were blockaded from the US military bases that flank that particular region, which would affect all destination countries. Russia may just not want trouble on its own doorstep, or sanctions to overspill and affect its own markets, which buy some of Iran's oil too, although Russia is the world's second largest producer of oil.

The UN Security Council was expected to vote this week to impose new sanctions on Iran for continuing with its enrichment programme, which they fear will create heavily-enriched uranium (HEU) for fabrication into a nuclear warhead. Tehran denies this, and insists that the sole purpose of the programme is to provide nuclear fuel for electricity generation. Russia has previously offered to enrich uranium for Iran on Russian territory, which should appease the UN, but Iran appears intent on securing its own technology, and there might well be good, non-military reasons for that. I have read that Israel has missiles capable of destroying Iranian nuclear facilities, and were they to be deployed for that purpose, the whole situation in the Middle East could become extremely unfortunate, with no knowing the extent of its outcome.

In the last month, Russian officials have acknowledged that there was a delay in the supply of nuclear fuel into the port-city of Bushehr, for which they blamed a simple lack of payment from Iran, and nothing so complicated as the wider political agenda of nuclear proliferation. The story remains murky, however, since a report on The Times web site claims that Russia had confirmed in an interview that the fuel would only be delivered once Iran had frozen its enrichment of uranium.

Meanwhile, Russia is projected to build 3 new nuclear power plants, beginning in 2016, and four more starting around 2018-2020. Given the decline in oil-production that is expected to bite into world markets within a decade, this makes sense, among the expected new generation of "nuclear" that many nations, including the UK are discussing the inauguration of. The industry is expected to accelerate construction of nuclear power stations without funding from the central government, according to the head of the Federal Atomic Agency, Sergei Kiriyenko, who is confident that costs for the enlargement of the nuclear power base can be borne at their own expense. He believes that the Russian atomic energy industry will become self-sustaining by 2015, following the injection by the government of 674 billion Rubles (£26 billion).

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