Russian President Vladimir Putin on March 12 personally ordered the suspension of any transfers of nuclear materials and technologies to Iran’s Bushehr nuclear power plant project, ostensibly because of Iran’s unwillingness to meet its payment schedule for the project. The idea that Iran, currently flush with petrodollars and facing down the U.N. Security Council over its nuclear program, would choose this moment to stop paying its primary political backer, Russia, is an odd one.
The reality is that Putin has no intention of ever completing the Bushehr project.
… The nuclear card has been among Iran’s most reliable means of drawing Washington’s attention and pushing the Americans to take Tehran’s concerns over the future of Iraq seriously, so Putin’s announcement has delivered the Iranians a strong blow.
… This does not eliminate Iran’s nuclear card. Tehran still has its uranium conversion program at Isfahan, its uranium enrichment program at Natanz, and a heavy-water reactor under construction at Arak, but these facilities are not under regular international inspections, and moreover have direct uses in a nuclear weapons program. (Though uranium power reactors such as Bushehr can be used in a weapons program, they require extensive additional support infrastructure first.) It is far more difficult to convince the West — and especially the Europeans, who are less inclined to view Iranian plans as nefarious — that these facilities are all for the peaceful development of nuclear energy when one’s power plant is not getting off the ground.
… Russia uses Bushehr as a means of injecting its influence into the Middle East, positioning itself as an impossible-to-ignore go-between for the West and Iran. So long as the facility is under construction, Moscow has maximized its leverage with all parties.
Should the facility ever come on line, however, Moscow will lose hugely. First, the West would be furious with Russia for giving Iran functional nuclear technology, severely damaging Russian relations with the West … neither the West nor Iran would need to keep talking to Russia about the Iranian nuclear power program … Iran is not a natural Russian ally … A nuclear-armed Iran is actually more of a long-term threat to Russia than it is to the United States, which a strategist like Putin knows well.