Russia’s Fluctuating Relations with Iran

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Interview with Anton Khlopkov
President of Russian Energy Studies and Security Center & Advisor to the Russian Security Council

IRAS: Iran’s relations with Russia have gone through many ups and downs in recent years with Bushehr atomic power plant being a major point of controversy. Although Russian officials have frequently promised to launch the plant as soon as possible, many Iranian experts maintain that Russia’s dawdling cannot be forgiven. Iran and Eurasia Research Center has conducted the following interview with Anton Khlopkov, who heads Russia’s Energy Studies and Security Center and is also advisor to the Russian Security Council to shed more light on this issue.

Q: Mr. Khlopkov, as advisor to the Russian Security Council, how do you see Iran’s relations with Russia under President Medvedev?

A: I think that the current level of relations is not proportionate to both countries’ capacities. Iran and Russia are neighboring countries and there is no doubt that to have more powerful relations, we should expand trade and economic exchanges. This will naturally consolidate relations. I think that Bushehr power plant has been a major stride in this direction, but further steps should be taken. As of recently there have been obstacles on the way of expanding relations. I think we must find new ways and grounds for cooperation.

Unfortunately, we are caught at the vortex of a whirlpool and despite many capacities for further cooperation, especially in Tehran; those capacities are not taken advantage of in a good manner. Energy is one of the most important areas for bilateral cooperation, which of course, is not the sole ground.

I think that both Russia and Iran should give voice to their views. We need infrastructure projects at various scales and Bushehr power plant is just one of them. We can cooperate in such areas as rail and subway transportation. In fact, I think there are many capacities, which are not taken advantage of in a good manner. Both the Iranian and Russian governments are to blame for this. Political problems always exist, but Iran and Russia are perennial neighbors and should be committed to good neighborly relations.

Q: What problems do you think are impeding further expansion of bilateral ties?

A: Many specialists are studying Iran’s relations with Russia. I only specialize in energy and can give opinion in this area. During recent years, expansion of bilateral relations has been stalled by various problems. Misunderstanding and lack of mutual trust is a major problem which if solved, relations in other areas, including trade and economy, will greatly improve. I think Bushehr is a very important case to be mentioned here and completion of the project will play a critical role in cementing bilateral relations because when finished, Russia will continue to work with Iran for the supply of nuclear fuel. During the first two years after the start of operations, Russian specialists will be there and oversee activities. Therefore, we must find new grounds for cooperation while, at the same time, strengthening existing relations.

Q: Mr. Khlopkov, you are well aware that Bushehr atomic power plan is a symbol of cooperation between Iran and Russia. What is Russia’s viewpoint about inauguration of the power plant and what reasons have thus far delayed the inauguration?

A: I think that Russia is quite clear about the power plant. Russia hopes to be able to observe its commitments. The physical part will be finished on May 8 and the next step will be power generation, which will be complete in the next few months. This is the latest I have heard from my colleagues in the government. I believe that there is no doubt about completion of Bushehr power plant. The last agreement has been signed in 2007 and Russia has started delivery of the nuclear fuel.

After Putin visited Iran, it was announced that Russia will deliver the nuclear fuel and I believe that this is a sign of Russia’s commitment to its obligations and there is no doubt about that. As for the long period of construction, the problem was due to signing the early agreement in 1992 followed by conclusion of the main contract in January 1995. Physical construction has taken 16 years which is much longer than usual time for building a power plant. Such plants are usually built in six years and there were many problems involved here.

The first problem was that original equipment installed at the plant was of German origin and Iran was willing to make use of them. This was logical because Iran had spent a lot of money on them in the 1970s. The problem is that construction of a nuclear power plant requires high-end technology and it was very difficult to build a Russian plant based on German equipment. During Iran-Iraq war, the power plant had been badly damaged and a minimum of three years was spent before the Russian technology could be mounted on German equipment. There was also a political problem, because the United States put tremendous pressure on countries which worked with Russia for the construction of the power plant. For example, Russia had ordered turbines to Ukraine, but under the US pressure, the latter country did not deliver turbines in 1998 and Russia had to purchase turbines from another country.

Russia was planning to buy the cooling system from the Czech Republic, but they came under US pressure too and did not deliver the system. In some cases we have to order some equipment three times. The third problem was Iran’s insistence to get 25 percent of the project done by its own engineers. However, since Iranian engineers lacked enough experiences, they changed their mind in 1998 and that part was also given over to the Russian specialists. The real work began at the beginning of 1990s, when the Russian economy was suffering under serious conditions brought about by the collapse of the former Soviet Union. Back then, certain equipment previously in possession of the Soviet Union had been transferred to new countries such as Ukraine and Belarus. Sanctions imposed after 2005 further worsened the situation. All these problems existed, but the important issue was that we overcame all of them. Everybody is negative toward construction of the power plant and keeps asking why it had taken so long. I, however, think that Iran and Russia should consider the plant a great achievement because it was pulled off in spite of severe sanctions and pressures from the United States.

Even in Iran, there were serious doubts about its completion. However, the power plant has been built and this is of the utmost significance both to Iran and Russia. We must be happy. This is a great achievement for Iran to have its own nuclear power plant and indicates high technological capacities of Iran. We must take advantage of this experience in the future. I think Iran and Russia have great capacities to cooperate in the area of energy and nuclear energy.

Q: How, do you think, we can take better advantage of those capacities?

A: I think that our work on Bushehr plant has increased mutual trust because trust among partners, especially with regard to the nuclear energy is of high importance. In meetings with Western counterparts, they told me that you cannot work with Iran. Now I say that this is not true and we have had many cases of cooperation with Iran, for example, in Caucasus. Russia holds great respect for Iran’s policies in Caucasus because Russia was going through dire straits at that time and had great problem with security. Iran, meanwhile, played a great role in stabilizing that region. The second region was Central Asia where Iran and Russia have common interests, but have reached good agreements to work together and those agreements are still in effect. I hope that they remain effective in the future too. The domestic war in Georgia was another good example to be mentioned here. Although the two countries followed relatively different interests, they worked toward the termination of the civil war. Thus, we have very good experiences, not only with regard to joint ventures, but also in third countries like Georgia. These experiences show that there are apt grounds for further cooperation.

Q: Some Iranian analysts maintain that US pressures have been effective in delaying construction of Bushehr power plant. What is your opinion?

A: I believe that US pressure has had no part to play because if Russia was to be affected by US pressure, it should have totally withdrawn from the power plant project. Nuclear energy is a very important area for Russia and Moscow has decided to build 25 atomic power plants in other countries within the next 20 years. If Russia does not finish Bushehr power plant, no other country will be willing to work with us.

In the opinion of Iranian analysts, Russia cares more for the United States than Iran. I think this is not true. We have common borders with Iran, not with the United States, though having borders is not, per se, that important. We have more expanded trade and political relations with the United States. Russia and the United States play an important role in international politics as two world powers and it is naturally more important to work with a world power. There is no doubt that Russia attaches great importance to relations with the United States, but it has no intention of sacrificing Bushehr power plant. For example, Russia was much weaker than now in economic and political terms back in 1990s because its economy had been badly hit by the implosion of the Soviet Union. However, even under those conditions, it did not forget its commitments toward Bushehr power plant. I am writing a book about history of the nuclear program of Iran. I have collected documents which show that Iran has been interested in the nuclear energy since 1946 and Iran’s ambassador in Hamburg has sent a telegram about nuclear energy to Tehran. The interesting point is that if Russia did not cut its nuclear cooperation with Iran in the 1990s, it will not certainly do it now. I emphasize that we attach great importance to cooperation with Iran.

At present, our trade exchanges border on 3 billion dollars which is very low in view of high capacities of both Iran and Russia. Secondly, we have many commonalties in security matters such as the Caspian Sea, Central Asia., Caucasus and even the Middle East. Therefore, Russia does not want to lose friendly relations with Iran, but those relations should be expanded because the current level is by no means satisfactory. Our relations with the United States are also based on our interests. If our interests call, we will strengthen relations with the United States just in the same way that our interests call on us to have close cooperation with Iran on security matters. Russia’s national interests are the foremost priority of Russian politicians.

Q: What is Russia’s viewpoint on Iran’s membership in Shanghai Cooperation Organization?

A: Since I am no specialist on Shanghai Cooperation Organization, I cannot answer this question.

Q: Do you think that Iran’s relations with Russia have changed under President Medvedev as compared to his predecessor, Putin?

A: I believe that under President Medvedev, relations with Iran were mostly personal. When Putin was president, he visited Iran, the like of which had not taken place in past decades and it was a good move. I emphasize on the need to bolster economic relations because this will greatly stabilize relations. Iran’s relations with Russia do not depend on who is in power. I believe that the existing capacities were not taken advantage of in expanding relations. Regardless of who will be Russia’s next president, both countries should strive toward strengthening relations. China and the United States, for example, enjoy good trade relations despite antagonistic political interests. This has made their relations more stable and we must also work more on this issue.

Q: If there are any last words, please say it here.

A: I want to mention Bushehr power plant again. Its completion will be a great moment for both countries and I hope new grounds will be provided for cooperation between Tehran and Moscow. I believe that Russia and Iran should be ashamed of low level of economic ties. Let’s not forget that it was the Soviet Union which made Isfahan’s iron smelting plant operational. Officials from both countries are well aware that despite pressures from the United States, good relations should be maintained and joint economic and trade ventures should be increased in number. I believe that economy and security are two key areas where both countries can work together. I hope this will happen in the near future.

Source: Iran and Eurasia Research Center (IRAS)
Translated By: Iran Review

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