In February, President Barack Obama sent a letter to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev seeking greater cooperation from Moscow for addressing concerns regarding Iran's nuclear program. The letter indicated that the U.S. deployment of a missile defense system in eastern Europe opposed by Russia would hinge on progress in preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
Responding to early press reports suggesting that the letter offered Moscow a trade of the missile defense system for cooperation on Iran, Obama clarified during a March 3 press conference that "what I said...was that, obviously, to the extent that we are lessening Iran's commitment to nuclear weapons, then that reduces the pressure for or the need for a missile defense system."
The United States is currently reviewing its plans for basing 10 missile interceptors in Poland and an advanced radar system in the Czech Republic.
Referring to the letter at a March 3 press conference, Medvedev stated that Russia is ready to discuss a new missile defense arrangement that is acceptable to Moscow and meets European security needs.
It is unclear what form of cooperation Washington is currently seeking from Moscow on Iran. According to former Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Nonproliferation Mark Fitzpatrick, Russian agreement to halt or limit arms sales to Iran would be the most significant form of cooperation on Iran. Speaking at the Henry L. Stimson Center March 9, Fitzpatrick said that such a move would place pressure on Tehran due to its dependence on Moscow for its military hardware.
A key piece of hardware the United States has been wary of Russia delivering to Iran is the S-300 air defense system, particularly the version known as the SA-20. The delivery of the SA-20 would provide Iran with the capability to counter aircraft at a range of 195 kilometers and ballistic missiles at a range of up to 50 kilometers.
Israel may be even more concerned about Iran's acquisition of the S-300. Ambassador Nancy Soderberg, former U.S. representative to the United Nations for special political affairs, said March 9 that Israeli officials see the delivery of the S-300 as shortening the time frame in which a military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities may be possible. She suggested that Israel might carry out such an attack if it believed such a delivery was imminent.
Iranian officials have stated on a number of occasions that Tehran has concluded an agreement with Moscow to acquire the S-300. Most recently, Iran's semiofficial Fars News Agency in December 2008 quoted Iranian Defense Minister Mustafa Najjar stating that "the S-300 air defense system will be delivered to Iran on the basis of a contract signed with Russia in the past." (See ACT, November 2008.)
Although Russia has never officially confirmed that it has agreed to sell the S-300 to Iran, the state-run Russian press agencies RIA Novosti and ITAR-TASS quoted an unnamed Russian defense official March 18 stating that Moscow concluded a contract with Tehran in 2007 for the sale of the S-300 to Iran, but that the system has not been delivered due to political and security considerations. The Russian official was not specific as to whether the SA-20 or the less capable SA-12 version was being discussed. According to the official, "[F]ulfillment of the contract will mainly depend on the current international situation and the decision of the country's leadership."
Russian officials have often stated that Moscow's military assistance to Iran would only provide weapons of a defensive nature "with due account of regional stability and security." (See ACT, November 2008.)
Fitzpatrick told Arms Control Today March 23 that "it seems clear that Russia entered into a contract with Iran for the S-300 but it's also clear that the Russians have not delivered on it and are holding on to it as potential negotiating leverage with the United States over ballistic missile defense and possibly other issues."
Treasury Sanctions Firms Tied to Iranian Bank
Although the new U.S. administration has not issued calls for additional UN sanctions, it has continued to levy its own sanctions on entities it suspects of being engaged in proliferation. The Department of the Treasury March 3 issued financial restrictions against 11 Iranian entities tied to Bank Melli, Iran's largest bank. The United States issued the sanctions under Executive Order 13382, which freezes the U.S.-held assets of entities and individuals suspected of proliferating unconventional weapons and prevents them from accessing the U.S. financial system. (See ACT, November 2008.)
Washington sanctioned Bank Melli under Executive Order 13382 in 2007. (See ACT, November 2007.) In March 2008, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1803, which called on states to "exercise vigilance" with respect to any dealings with Iranian financial institutions, "in particular with Bank Melli and Bank Saderat."
Announcing the new sanctions, Undersecretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Stuart Levey stated that Washington "will continue to take steps to protect the integrity of the international financial system by exposing the banks, companies, and individuals supporting Iran's nuclear and missile programs."
Iran Said to Violate Arms Embargo
In addition to failing to comply with UN resolutions requiring that Tehran halt its sensitive nuclear activities, Iran also appears to have further violated international restrictions on its arms transfers.
Ambassador Yukio Takasu, Japanese permanent representative to the UN and chair of the Security Council committee tasked with monitoring the three sanctions resolutions imposed on Iran, told the council March 10 that a Syria-bound shipment of arms from Iran violated Resolution 1747.
That resolution, adopted by the council in March 2007, prohibits Iran from exporting "any arms or related materiel" and forbids states from importing such materials from Iran.
The committee sent letters to Iran and Syria March 9 seeking additional information regarding their involvement in the transfer. Reuters reported March 10 that according to those letters, the inspections of the Cypriot-flagged vessel, the MV Monchegorsk, carried out in Cyprus Jan. 29-Feb. 2 revealed that it carried military equipment such as high-explosive shells, 125-millimeter armor-piercing shells, and high-explosive anti-tank propellant.
Following Takasu's report, Susan Rice, U.S. permanent representative to the UN, called on the committee to "redouble its efforts" to ensure the implementation of the sanctions on Iran. She added that the United States is "prepared for principled engagement with Iran, and we will ensure that such engagement is consistent with the decisions of this body."
In a sterner message, John Sawers, British permanent representative to the UN, issued a warning that if Iran continued to violate its international obligations, the international community must "make clear to Iran that its choices will have a cost."
Iran Precommissions Bushehr Plant
Meanwhile, Iran continued to make progress on its nuclear efforts by precommissioning its first nuclear power reactor at Bushehr on Feb. 25. The precommissioning entailed running the plant with virtual fuel to test its operations. Gholamreza Aghazadeh, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, and Sergey Kiriyenko, head of the state-run Russian nuclear firm Rosatom, oversaw the precommissioning and indicated that the operation was successful.
Kiriyenko told reporters Feb. 25 that work on the plant is in its "final stages," adding "what we have to do with our Iranian co-workers is to take a look in order to see what we can do in order to make our site operational as soon as possible." Iranian officials have indicated that the plant could start operations by the fall of 2009.
Rosatom has been constructing the plant since 1995, but the project has met numerous delays, putting off the operation of the reactor for several years. Germany originally started construction of the reactor in the 1970s but halted work in the 1980s following the 1979 Iranian revolution. Russia completed construction work in 2008 and delivered the reactor's initial supply of nuclear fuel. The fuel and the reactor remain under IAEA safeguards.
Washington initially opposed the project for years due to concerns that the plant would contribute to any Iranian nuclear weapons efforts. Following a 2005 agreement in which Tehran pledged to return spent fuel from the reactor to Russia, thereby preventing Iran from separating plutonium for nuclear weapons, the United States ultimately halted its opposition. (See ACT, April 2005.)
Washington now claims that the plant demonstrates that Iran does not need its own uranium-enrichment capabilities due to its arrangements to use low-enriched Russian fuel.