Russia has dramatically stepped up diplomatic efforts to revive international talks on Iran's nuclear programme in an attempt to improve bilateral relations with Tehran and reduce the threat of a Western military attack on Iran.
Following a visit to Tehran by Kremlin Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi visited Moscow on August 16-17 to discuss details of a Russian plan to kick-start nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 group of countries comprising the five U.N. Security Council permanent members plus Germany.
The plan proposed by Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov last November and resubmitted in July this year, calls for a step-by-step approach to resolving the Iranian nuclear dilemma. As Mr. Lavrov explained, Iran should be rewarded for every step it takes to clarify outstanding questions about its nuclear programme posed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
“We suggest that a roadmap be drawn up for each IAEA requirement that Iran must fulfil, starting with simpler questions and ending with those whose solution may require more time,” Mr. Lavrov said during a visit to the U.S. in mid-July. “We are convinced that in response to each concrete, not declarative, step by Iran it is important to make a reciprocal step in the form of freezing sanctions against it and, as further progress is made, reducing sanctions.”
The most important aspect of the Russian plan is that it does not contain a demand put forward by the U.S. and its Western partners that Iran stops uranium enrichment.
“If you fulfill all your obligations, you will enjoy all the rights which include the right to enrichment,” Mr. Lavrov said.
Following his talks with Mr. Lavrov on August 16 Mr. Salehi said that Iran “takes a positive view” of the Russian step-by-step plan. He described it as an “important proposal” containing “good elements” that could be further “improved.”
Analysts said Tehran endorsed the Lavrov plan because it sees it as a welcome departure of Russia from following the U.S. policy of raking up pressure on Iran. Last year, Moscow supported U.N. sanctions against Iran that were advocated by Washington and tore up a contract to supply S-300 air defence systems to Iran. This set in a period of frostiness in Moscow-Tehran ties that has now been largely overcome.
Nuclear plant; regional issues
Addressing a joint press conference with Mr. Lavrov on August 16, Mr. Salehi announced that the formal launching of the long-delayed Bushehr nuclear plant built by Russia will take place next month when Russia's Energy Minister Sergei Shmatko visits Iran for a session of the Russian-Iranian inter-government commission.
Mr. Lavrov and Mr. Salehi said their countries shared close or identical views on most regional problems, including Afghanistan and the turmoil in West Asia and North Africa.
The Russian and Iranian Foreign Ministers were careful to avoid giving a timeframe for the resumption of talks between Iran and the P5+1 group. Mr. Lavrov said Moscow was talking to both parties. “Everything depends on when the two sides are ready to sit down and discuss the existing problems,” he said.
Washington has given a lukewarm response to the Lavrov plan, with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton voicing readiness only “to explore with the Russians ways that we can perhaps pursue more effective engagement strategies.” At the same time she reiterated U.S. commitment to the “dual track of pressure and engagement.”
Moscow is genuinely concerned about the ongoing escalation of threats against Iran. Russia's NATO envoy Dmitry Rogozin feels that the NATO military campaign in Libya and mounting pressure on Syria could suggest preparations for an attack on Iran.
“The noose on Iran is tightening,” Mr. Rogozin said in a recent interview to the Moscow-based Izvestia daily. “Plans are being drawn up for a military campaign against Tehran. We don't like at all the prospect of a large-scale war in the region.”
Russian diplomats are not overly optimistic about an early breakthrough in the Iran crisis.
“I can't say we see any practical desire of the sides [Iran and the West] to give up their excessive demands,” Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told a media briefing on August 15. “Western nations expect Iran to stop uranium enrichment, while Iran expects the West to cancel all sanctions and to recognise its right to enrich uranium.”
For all its scepticism, Moscow would be happy if its new plan helps ward off the threat of a war in the Persian Gulf and improve its ties with Tehran.