Text size

The forthcoming war to disarm Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction has diverted international attention from Iran, which is actively pursuing nuclear arms. Russia has elected to honor the nuclear deals it signed with the Iranian regime, rebuffing calls from the United States and Israel to shut down the technological pipeline. The Putin government has tightened up relations with the Bush administration, and in many areas has toed the American line. Only on the Iranian file are the Russians adamant about retaining freedom of action.

In recent conversations with the U.S. administration, the Russians trotted out their old arguments. They denied any covert cooperation with Iran, and asked that "evidence" of any wrongdoing be presented. The Americans, who have been burned in the past, refused to disclose their intelligence sources. The discussion was deferred until a summit between presidents Putin and Bush takes place at the end of October in Mexico. But the Russians are not overly concerned: Bush will be asking the Russians not to hold him back on the way to Baghdad. Iran can wait.

Russian diplomacy scored points in the "leakage" of nuclear technology to Iran affair. The Russians are always willing to talk, and agreed to a dialogue with Israel on the Iran issue. They always listen politely to allegations, try to soothe nerves and only give up when there is no other choice. Two years ago, they stopped the export to Iran of lasers used for enriching uranium, after being presented with evidence by the Americans. But when Israel showed Putin its information about sales of components for centrifuges used for enriching uranium, they offered a stammering response; the shipment was sent.

After failing in their attempts to oppose every nuclear transaction with Iran, the U.S. and Israel decided to switch tactics. They understood that Russia would be completing construction of the nuclear power generator in Bushehr, which will begin functioning at the end of next year. The reactor will be under international supervision, but is considered a cover operation for covert projects and transfers of know-how. Now they are trying to persuade the Russians to set up a full-strength supervisory apparatus, and consider the Iranians suspect.

Two weeks ago, Gideon Frank, director-general of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, met with his Russian counterpart Alexander Rumyantsev at a conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. In Washington and Jerusalem, Rumyantsev is considered decent, open-minded and unbound by nationalism and corruption. But he has a payroll-heavy nuclear conglomerate to worry about, and exports to Iran provide their livelihood. Frank was interested in learning about supervisory measures in place at Bushehr. Rumyantsev promised that the nuclear fuel would be supplied to Russia after radiation in a reactor, in an effort to prevent it being used to make plutonium for nuclear weapons. At this point, the men argued a technical point: How long would the radiated fuel be held in Iran before being shipped back to Russia? Would it be several years, giving the radiation a chance to subside, or could the process be shortened? Frank said that Russo-Iranian cooperation in several different areas was a matter of concern for Israel, but as expected, he was told there were no other projects aside from the Bushehr reactor.

Rumyantsev was invited to visit Israel, and took part in last week's meeting in Moscow between his prime minister, Mikhail Kasyanov, and Ariel Sharon. But in spite of the lackluster results, Israeli sources say it is worth maintaining the dialogue with Russia, and it will continue.

Iran vehemently denies any covert nuclear development program. A few weeks ago, the Iranian opposition in Washington disclosed details on two secret sites being built by the Iranians for the production of nuclear fuel and heavy water. Israel assesses that the information is correct, and is wondering how Tehran will act. The European Atomic Energy Agency expects Iran to take the report in its stride and admit the existence of the facilities, which do not violate international treaties. If they do so, the Iranians will win extra points for "openness and transparency," thereby sidestepping international pressure and gaining time in their pursuit of nuclear power.