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Iran link bars US aid to Russian space program: NASA
February 11, 2003

NASA said that an obscure US law aimed at curbing the military ambitions of Iran bars Washington from financing Russia's struggling space program even though it now serves as the sole link to the International Space Station.

"High level negotiations and talks are going on" between Moscow and Washington on ways of using Russia's limited stock of space rockets to keep the ISS alive, the US space agency's Russia representative James Newman said.

Russia's manned Soyuz and cargo Progress craft remain the only option for moving crew and keeping the ISS in proper orbit following NASA's decision to ground its shuttle program as it determines what caused the February 1 Columbia disaster.

Space officials in Moscow said last week that Russia needed to find nearly 50 million dollars (47 million euros) to keep the ISS operational this year.

But Newman told reporters that this money could not come from Washington and that the United States was now eyeing partnerships with Europe and Japan because of Russia's military cooperation with Iran.

The Iran Nonproliferation Act (INA) signed by former US president Bill Clinton in March 2000 "limits financing and this agreement stands," said Newman, who himself flew on the Columbia shuttle in March 2002.

"Right now we just can't do it," Newman said in reference to assistance to Russia.

The INA law prohibits NASA from making payments "in cash or in kind" to Russia for the ISS until Moscow takes "necessary steps" to prevent the transfer of weapons of mass destruction and missile systems to Iran.

Russia is constructing a nuclear power plant in Iran and selling other military hardware to a country viewed by Washington as a "rogue state". But Moscow denies that its cooperation with Tehran breaks international law.

The INA law can be repealed and NASA financing to Russia resumed only in the event that the life of ISS passengers is considered to be in danger.

The NASA official refused to speculate how long the shuttle may remain grounded and whether Russia's limited ability to compensate for the frozen US program could soon hurt the ISS.

"This is the question that we are trying to work on right now, and are trying to understand," said Newman.

"Clearly it (the shuttle's loss) is going to postpone the construction" of the ISS, he said.

"This delay has already had an unfortunate effect, but I wouldn't call (the situation) bad," he added.

A progress ship was due later Monday to give an extra boost to the ISS to keep it in proper orbit.

The operation was to have been conducted by another shuttle mission and now highlights the importance of Russia's creaking program to international space ambitions.

Rosaviokosmos (Russian space agency) chief Yury Koptev told the Nezavisimaya Gazeta daily that Moscow must now prove "that our new space obligations go outside the frameworks of previous commitments, or that we are exceptionally poor."

He added that political negotiations over limits imposed by the INA "will be very difficult."

Military analysts said that Washington is willing to pay for Russia's Soyuz rockets in full should Moscow interrupt construction of the Bushehr nuclear power plant in Iran.

"This offer is part of the compensation package the Bush administration has been promising the Kremlin if it stops its nuclear cooperation with Iran and withdraws the more than 1,000 Russian engineers and technicians," analyst Pavel Felgenhauer told the Moscow Times.

"Until now, Moscow has resisted US overtures and has continued to sign arms and nuclear contracts with Ira," wrote Felgenhauer.

While close links with Iran are maintained, it's hardly likely that the US Congress will approve budget funds to be disbursed" to the Russian space agency, the analyst concluded.

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