Iran is seeking help from Russia to bolster its nuclear weapons program, US intelligence officials believe, as Tehran seeks a backup plan in the event of a lasting nuclear deal with world powers do not materialize.
The intelligence suggests Iran has asked Russia to help it acquire additional nuclear materials and manufacture nuclear fuel, sources briefed on the matter said. The fuel could help Iran power its nuclear reactors and could potentially further shorten Iran’s so-called “breakout time” to create a nuclear weapon.
Experts have told CNN, however, that the risk of nuclear proliferation varies depending on which reactor the fuel is used for. And it’s also unclear whether Russia has agreed to help — the Kremlin has long opposed Iran getting a nuclear weapon.
But the Iranian proposal came as part of an expanding Iran-Russia partnership that in recent months has included Iran sending drones and other equipment to Russia for use in its war. in Ukraine, and Moscow potentially advising Tehran on how to quell a protest movement sweeping Iran. , U.S. officials said.
The Biden administration is therefore watching with concern any new areas of cooperation between Iran and Russia. Any covert Russian aid to Iran that could boost Iranian efforts to produce a nuclear weapon would also mark a significant shift in Russian policy, given Russia’s membership in the P5+1 group of countries that took part in negotiations to thwart Iran’s nuclear program.
“As we said, the JCPOA is not on the agenda,” National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson told CNN, referring to the official name of the agreement on the Iranian nuclear, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. “We have worked with partners to expose the growing ties between Iran and Russia – and hold them accountable. We will be firm in opposing any cooperation that would run counter to our non-proliferation objectives.
Iran’s mission to the UN and the Russian Foreign Ministry did not respond to requests for comment.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky hinted last week that Iran was looking to Russia for help with its nuclear program in return for military assistance it gave Moscow, but intelligence obtained by the United States does not indicate the existence of an explicit quid pro quo. quo, sources said.
Instead, Iran’s overtures to Russia appear at least partly motivated by the belief among senior Iranian officials that a new nuclear deal will not be revived or, if it is, will not last. .
Intelligence sources told CNN that Iran’s concerns appeared more acute over the summer as it appeared to be closing in on a new nuclear deal with the United States and other known world powers. as P5+1, a group that includes Russia. Iran feared a future administration would walk away from a deal, as the Trump administration did in 2018, so it sought a side deal with Russia that would allow it to quickly rebuild its nuclear program if needed. .
CNN previously reported that Iran had asked the United States for guarantees that a future administration would not renege on the deal — a promise the United States said it could not make.
Asked if the growing partnership between Iran and Russia was a factor in the derailment of nuclear deal talks, a senior administration official told CNN: “Obviously, side deals between the Russia that fundamentally undermine the structure of the 2015 deal would be a serious concern and further reduce the possibility of a return to the deal.The official declined to comment specifically on intelligence assessments.
James Acton, co-director of the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said he doesn’t think Iran necessarily needs help, but they do have an incentive to produce the fuel faster. , at a lower cost and in a shorter time.
“They have clear incentives to ask for help, especially on the fuel side,” Acton said.
“Three or four years ago, when US-Russian relations were bad, but not catastrophic, I would be quite skeptical about Russia helping Iran,” Acton added. “But under the current conditions, in which US-Russian relations are extremely bad and Russian-Iranian relations are improving, I think the equation is quite different for Russia.”
The US withdrawal from the JCPOA has also likely increased Russia’s willingness to help Iran in this regard, Acton noted – especially now that a new deal seems out of reach.
Russia played a key role throughout 2021 in the nuclear deal talks and even brokered some deals that allowed the International Atomic Energy Agency to go ahead with inspections on Iran’s nuclear sites, thus keeping the negotiations on the right track.
However, after Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Russian officials seemed less invested in the deal. In June, Russia rejected an IAEA-proposed resolution that criticized Iran for not cooperating with inspections of traces of uranium found at some undeclared nuclear sites in the country, a critical sticking point that has contributed to derail the talks. That same month, a Russian delegation started to visit at an airfield in Iran to examine weapons-capable drones, which Russia has now purchased and used in Ukraine by the hundreds.
US officials have stressed in recent days and weeks that negotiations on the nuclear deal are virtually dead, at least for now. The Iranian regime’s brutal and violent crackdown on protesters and its support for Russian military operations in Ukraine have made it increasingly difficult for senior Biden administration officials to consider striking a deal with Tehran that would provide it with a windfall. financial support in the form of sanctions relief.
US special envoy for Iran Rob Malley said on Monday that while the United States remained committed to diplomacy to limit Iran’s nuclear program, US officials were not going to “waste our time” on the deal nuclear “if nothing happens”. ”
Instead, the United States is now focusing on areas where it can be “helpful”, Malley said, such as supporting protesters in Iran and finding ways to stop Iranian arms transfers to Iran. Russia. He noted that the United States always had “a preference for diplomacy” in its relations 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 nuclear weapons.”