Vienna, September 1 – Another piece of fallout from the rise in tensions between Moscow and the West over Russia’s invasion of Georgia is Moscow’s announcement that it will help Iran complete the construction of the nuclear plant in Bushehr, a project that had been delayed by U.S. objections that Tehran would use that facility to build a nuclear weapon.
Last Thursday, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said that Moscow was prepared to do complete construction there whatever the Americans say, a statement both intended to put pressure on Washington to back down over Georgia and highlighting the reality, seldom admitted by the West, that Moscow has been behind the Iranian project for more than a decade.
Two reports in the last 24 hours have heightened concerns in this regard. Yesterday, the London “Telegraph” reported that Washington is “concerned” that Moscow will provide Iran with its S-300 anti-aircraft missile system, a development that would make it vastly more costly for the U.S. or Israel to attack the facility.
Russia’s S-300 system, the paper said, is “one of the most advanced multi-target anti-aircraft systems in the world, with a reported ability to track up to 100 targets simultaneously while engaging up to 12 at the same time. It has a range of about 200 kilometers and can hit targets at altitudes of 27,000 meters.”
And the “Telegraph” quoted Dan Goure, who advises the Pentagon as saying that “if Tehran obtained the S-300, it would be a game-changer in military thinking for tackling Iran,” thus raising the possibility of “Israeli air attacks before [that system is] operational” (www.defence.pk/forums/world-affairs/13905-telegraph-us-fears-russia-sell-s-300-iran.html).
Then today, the “Jerusalem Post” said that officials from Russia’s atomic construction firm, Atomstroyexport, will arrive in Iran tomorrow to “discuss the completion of the 1,000-megawatt power plant” in Bushehr,” a project Moscow has been working on since 1995 (www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1220186492375&pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull).
Russia’s ambassador to Iran, the Israeli paper said, has “given assurances” to Tehran that “Bushehr will be supplying nuclear energy by early next year.” But many in Israel, the United States and Europe are concerned that Iran will use the plant less to provide power for its economy than to process uranium for the construction of nuclear weapons.
That is why the United States and Europe have sought both directly and through the IAEA to force Iran to give up its nuclear program, even though both Tehran and Moscow insist that it is for peaceful purposes only. Now, by its announcement, Russia has significantly raised the stakes in this standoff.
But in evaluating these reports, two things need to be kept in mind. On the one hand, Moscow’s actions certainly are clearly designed to pressure the West to back down from sanctions against Russia by reminding everyone of Moscow’s capacity to create problems elsewhere. After all, few Russians would be pleased to see Iran become a nuclear power.
And on the other hand, the two new articles follow reports last week there and in the United States that Israel may launch an airstrike against Bushehr. Consequently, at least some in the Israeli capital and Washington may have an interest in playing up reports of Russian actions to justify just such a strike.