Iran is seeking Russia’s help to bolster its nuclear program, US Intel officials believe


Washington
CNN

Iran is seeking Russia’s help to bolster its nuclear program, US intelligence officials believe, as Tehran seeks a backup plan if a permanent nuclear deal with world powers fails to materialize.

Intelligence suggests Iran has asked Russia for help in acquiring additional nuclear materials and manufacturing nuclear fuel, sources briefed on the matter said. The fuel could help Iran power its nuclear reactors and potentially further shorten the so-called “breakout time” for Iran to build a nuclear weapon.

However, experts told CNN that the risk of nuclear proliferation varies depending on which reactors the fuel is used for. And it is also unclear whether Russia has agreed to help: the Kremlin has long voiced its opposition to Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon.

But Iran’s proposal comes amid expanding cooperation between Iran and Russia, Iran’s delivery of drones and other equipment to Russia in recent months for use in the war in Ukraine, and Moscow advising Tehran on how to crack down on Iran’s growing protest movement. , US officials said.

Iran has said its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only and that it has formally suspended its weapons program, but US officials have said Iran’s uranium enrichment activities have gone beyond the parameters of the 2015 nuclear deal and would take time. Iran’s production of enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon has been shortened to less than a month.

In June, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned lawmakers that Iran’s nuclear “program is moving forward… The longer it goes, the longer it takes to come down… According to public reports, it comes down to months. And if that continues, weeks. it will arrive.”

The Biden administration is watching with concern the new areas of cooperation between Iran and Russia. Any covert Russian aid to Iran’s efforts to produce a nuclear weapon would also mark a significant shift in Russian policy, as Russia has been part of the P5+1 group of negotiations to curb Iran’s nuclear program.

“As we’ve said, the JCPOA is not on the agenda,” National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson told CNN, referring to the Iran nuclear deal’s formal name, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. “We have been working with partners to expose and hold accountable the growing ties between Iran and Russia. We will be resolute in addressing any cooperation that would run counter to our non-proliferation goals.”

Iran’s UN and Russia’s foreign ministry did not return requests for comment.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky suggested last week that Iran was looking to Russia for help with its nuclear program in return for military aid to Moscow, but intelligence obtained by the US does not indicate an explicit quid-pro. quo, sources said.

Instead, Iran’s overtures to Russia appear to be driven, at least in part, by a belief among senior Iranian officials that a new nuclear deal will not be resurrected or, if it is, sustained.

Intelligence sources told CNN that Iran’s concerns became more acute over the summer as it was closing in on a new nuclear deal with the United States and other world powers known as the P5+1 — a group that includes Russia. Iran’s fear was that a future administration could pull out of the deal, as the Trump administration did in 2018, so it sought a side deal with Russia that would allow it to quickly restart its nuclear program if necessary.

CNN previously reported that Iran had asked the US for assurances that a future administration would not renege on the deal, a promise the US said it could not make.

When asked if the growing cooperation between Iran and Russia was a factor in the derailment of the nuclear deal talks, a senior administration official told CNN: “Obviously, side deals between Russia that fundamentally undermined the structure of the 2015 deal would be a serious concern and would further reduce the deal.” return option.” The official declined to comment specifically on the intelligence evaluations.

James Acton, co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said he doesn’t think Iran necessarily needs aid, but they do have an incentive to produce more fuel faster, cheaper and more. shorter timeline.

“They have clear incentives to ask for help, particularly on the fuel side,” Acton said.

“Three or four years ago, when relations between the US and Russia were bad, but not catastrophic, I would have been quite skeptical that Russia would support Iran,” Acton added. “But in today’s conditions, when US-Russian relations are very bad and Russian-Iranian relations are improving, I think the equation is quite different for Russia.”

The US withdrawal from the JCPOA has also increased Russia’s willingness to help Iran in this regard, Acton noted, and above all, a new deal seems out of reach.

Russia played a key role in the 2021 nuclear deal talks and even brokered a number of agreements to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency to proceed with inspections of Iran’s nuclear sites, effectively continuing the negotiations.

After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, however, Russian officials became less invested in the deal. In June, Russia rejected a proposed IAEA resolution that criticized Iran for not cooperating with inspections of traces of uranium found at some of the country’s undeclared nuclear sites, a critical sticking point that led to the derailment of talks. That same month, a Russian delegation began making visits to an Iranian airport to study weapons-capable drones — Russia has now purchased and used hundreds of them in Ukraine.

US officials have insisted in recent days and weeks that nuclear deal negotiations are dead, at least for now. The Iranian regime’s brutal and violent crackdown on protesters and support for Russia’s military operations in Ukraine have made it increasingly difficult for senior Biden administration officials to envision a deal with Tehran that would provide them with an income that would ease sanctions.

US Special Envoy for Iran Rob Malley said Monday that while the US remains committed to diplomacy to limit Iran’s nuclear program, US officials will not “waste time” on the nuclear deal if “nothing happens”. ”

Instead, the U.S. is now focusing on areas where it can be “useful,” Malley said, including helping Iranian protesters and finding ways to stop Iranian arms transfers to Russia. He noted that the US still has “a priority of diplomacy” in dealings with Iran. But, he added, “we will use other tools, and as a last resort, a military option if necessary, to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.”

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to clarify the description of Iran’s nuclear program.