Iran is seeking Russia’s help to bolster its nuclear weapons program, US intelligence officials believe, as Tehran looks for a backup plan should a lasting nuclear deal with world powers fail to materialize.
The intelligence suggests that Iran has been asking Russia for help acquiring additional nuclear materials and with nuclear fuel fabrication, 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 emphasized to CNN, however, that the nuclear proliferation risk varies depending on which reactor the fuel is used for. And it is also not clear whether Russia has agreed to help – the Kremlin has long been outwardly opposed to Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon.
But the Iranian proposal has come amid an expanding partnership between Iran and Russia 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 suppress a protest movement sweeping Iran, US officials said.
The Biden administration is therefore watching any new areas of cooperation between Iran and Russia with concern. Any covert Russian assistance 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 of the P5+1 group of countries that have been part of the negotiations to stymie Iran’s nuclear program.
“As we have said, the JCPOA is not on the agenda,” National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson told CNN, referring to the formal name for the Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. “We have been working with partners to expose the growing ties between Iran and Russia – and hold them accountable. We will be firm in countering any cooperation that would be counter to our non-proliferation goals.”
The Iranian Mission to the UN and the Russian 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 exchange for the military assistance it has given to Moscow, but the intelligence obtained by the US does not indicate the existence of an explicit quid-pro-quo, sources said.
Instead, Iran’s overtures to Russia appear at least partly motivated by a belief among senior Iranian officials that a new nuclear deal either won’t be revived or, if it is, won’t last.
Sources briefed on the intelligence told CNN that Iran’s concerns appeared most acute over the summer, as it appeared to be closing in on a new nuclear deal with the US and other world powers known as the P5+1—a group that includes Russia. Iran’s fear was that a future administration might pull out of a deal, as the Trump administration did in 2018, so it sought a side deal with Russia that would allow it to reconstitute its nuclear program quickly if necessary.
CNN has previously reported that Iran sought guarantees from the US that a future administration would not renege on the deal—a promise the US said it could not make.
Asked whether the growing Iran-Russia partnership was a factor in the nuclear deal talks getting derailed, a senior administration official told CNN, “Obviously, side deals between Russia that fundamentally undermined the structure of the 2015 agreement would be a serious concern and further reduce the possibility of a return to the agreement.” 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 does not believe Iran necessarily needs the help—but that they do have an incentive, namely to produce the fuel more quickly, cheaply, and on a shorter timeline.
“They do have clear incentives to ask for help, particularly on the fuel side,” Acton said.
“Three to four years ago, when US-Russia relations were bad, but not catastrophic, I would be pretty skeptical that Russia would provide Iran with help,” Acton added. “But under today’s conditions, under which US-Russia relations are extremely bad and Russian-Iranian relations are getting better, I think the equation looks quite different for Russia.”
The US withdrawal from the JCPOA also likely increased Russia’s willingness to help Iran in this respect, Acton noted – and especially now that a new deal appears out of reach.
Russia played a key role throughout 2021 in the nuclear deal talks and even mediated some deals that allowed the International Atomic Energy Agency to move forward with inspections at Iranian nuclear sites, effectively keeping the negotiations on track.
After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, however, Russian officials appeared less invested in the deal. In June, Russia rejected a resolution proposed by the IAEA that criticized Iran for failing to cooperate with inspections of uranium traces found at some undeclared nuclear sites in the country, a critical sticking point that contributed to talks being derailed. That same month, a Russian delegation began making visits to an airfield in Iran to examine weapons-capable drones—which Russia has now purchased and used in Ukraine by the hundreds.
US officials have emphasized in recent days and weeks that nuclear deal negotiations are all but dead, at least for now. The Iranian regime’s brutal and violent crackdown on protesters and support for Russian military operations in Ukraine has made it increasingly difficult for senior Biden administration officials to envision striking a deal with Tehran that would provide it with a financial windfall in the form of sanctions relief.
The US Special Envoy for Iran, Rob Malley, said on Monday that while the United States remains committed to diplomacy to constrain Iran’s nuclear program, US officials are not going to “waste our time” on the nuclear deal “if nothing’s going to happen.”
Instead, the US is now focused on areas it can be “useful,” Malley said, like supporting protesters in Iran and looking for ways to stop Iranian weapons transfers to Russia. He noted that the US still has “a preference for diplomacy” in dealing with Iran. But, he added, “we will use other tools, and in last resort, a military option if necessary, to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.”