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Russia's Plans In Iran Could Make Waves In Nuclear Talks


Now, nuclear diplomacy - the possible Russian role in controlling Iran's nuclear program. We're counting down the days until the November 24 deadline for an international agreement on some plan to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. If there is no agreement by then, it's either give up on that prospect or extend the deadline once again. Well, the key player in an agreement could be Russia.

Ariane Tabatabai, who writes a column for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, has written about the role the Russians are playing.

Welcome to the program.

ARIANE TABATABAI: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: And as I understand it, the Russians have said let Iran open more power plants, we'll supply the uranium and then we'll collect the spent fuel rods.

What would that accomplish?

TABATABAI: Well, one of the key issues around the Iranian nuclear program is enrichment. It's one of the two ways a country can develop a nuclear weapon and if Russia comes in and enriches the uranium and gives the fuel to Iran then that would help the international community make sure that the Iranian nuclear program is indeed for peaceful purposes, and that would help the negotiations.

SIEGEL: And what is Russia's interest in becoming that deeply involved in Iran's nuclear program?

TABATABAI: Well, Russia's been very much involved in Iran since 1979 when the United States and the West essentially left a lot of the key parts of the Iranian industry - whether it was nuclear energy or aerospace - and so they've been working with Iran for 35 years at this point and they benefit from the status quo because they're the ones who get a lot of business out of this.

SIEGEL: Can the Russians at some point say - if this is the kind of deal that emerges - look, we've figured out a way to solve the problem of the Iranian nuclear program, how about a little concession on the sanctions against us for Ukraine?

TABATABAI: Yeah, potentially. That sounds similar to what happened with Syria, right? They stepped in and said OK, here we're going to solve the Syrian chemical weapons issue that nobody else can solve and we get brownie points for it - and I think that it is potentially something they could use.

SIEGEL: You have written about this question of how many centrifuges might Iran be allowed to keep and operate under an agreement that could be used to enrich uranium and you've written about the sweet spot. They have about 19,000 right now and what's the range that you think they might arrive at, ultimately?

TABATABAI: I think about 4-5,000 centrifuges is what would be the easiest to sell on both sides. More than 5,000 would be difficult for the Congress to accept for instance and less than 4,000 would be difficult for the Iranian Parliament to accept.

SIEGEL: And with that amount of centrifuges what could they do? Would this be for their medical use that they would be enriching uranium, or for what purpose?

TABATABAI: Well, right now not much. It doesn't really have a practical use but what they're trying to do is to work toward a much greater number that the supreme leader has said they want, which is 190,000 centrifuges, essentially.

SIEGEL: At this point they're looking ahead to November 24. Boy, there have been a lot of columns saying there's no chance of them resolving all the outstanding issues by then. What's your expectation of what happens on the 24?

TABATABAI: Well, it seems like the key sticking points have more or less been solved. It seems like right now it comes down to enrichment and more importantly, sanctions, or the sequencing. Which sanctions should be lifted or, you know, suspended first? And that's where the U.S. and Iran particularly are not seeing eye- to-eye. I think that it's possible to have some sort of global political agreement saying OK, we're going to have this agreement and we're going to work out the details in the weeks to come. That, I think is quite likely.

SIEGEL: A possible outcome.


SIEGEL: OK and so far as you know, the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, has no problem with the Russians, they're not regarded as a hostile party at all by the Iranians?

TABATABAI: Well, that's really interesting because I think that Iranians distrust the Russians as much as Americans do. Russia has not been a reliable partner on any level for Iran, but Iran hasn't really had a choice since the revolution. If Iran can get some sort of rapprochement with, you know, the U.S. and Europe I think they would likely turn toward the West, but right now Russia seems to be the only partner.

As far as the supreme leader goes, no, I think as long as, you know, his goals are met it doesn't matter if it's Russia or not.

SIEGEL: Ariane Tabatabai, thank you very much for talking with us.

TABATABAI: Thank you for having me.

SIEGEL: Ariane Tabatabai is a columnist for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and she's based at the Belfer Center at Harvard University. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.