The groundbreaking ceremony of Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant, held in Bushehr, Iran on November 10, 2019.
Washington CNN  — 

Iran is seeking Russia’s help to bolster its nuclear 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.

Iran has said its nuclear program is only for peaceful purposes and that it formally halted its weapons program, but US officials have stated that Iran’s uranium enrichment activities have gone far beyond the parameters of the 2015 nuclear deal and that the amount of time it would take for Iran to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon has shortened to just months.

In June US Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned lawmakers that Iran’s nuclear “program is galloping forward … The longer this goes on, the more the breakout time gets down … it’s now down, by public reports, to a few months at best. And if this continues, it will get down to a matter of weeks.”

The Biden administration is 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.

Ukraine alleged Iran is seeking help from Russia

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 wo