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Atlanta Journal-Constitution
June 15, 2003
Iran deal makes Russia uneasy
Nuclear program offers benefits, but also risks

MOSCOW -- Despite U.S. pressure to halt its cooperation, Russia has doggedly pursued a program to build a nuclear reactor for Iran, saying the sole purpose of the lucrative contract is to develop civilian nuclear energy.

But as the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency prepares to meet Monday to discuss Iran, Russia is feeling uneasy with Tehran because of concern that the Persian Gulf country is pursuing an advanced program to build a nuclear weapon.

Russian officials are worried, analyst Anton Khlopkov said at the Moscow-based PIR Center, a think tank.

"I think there are strong concerns, not only in Israel or the United States but also in Russia, especially in light of the latest developments," Khlopkov said.

Iran conceded this year that it was building a previously undisclosed underground uranium enrichment facility, which could be used to refine uranium into weapons-grade material. Iran said it planned to use the complex only to produce its own reactor fuel.

U.S. officials argue that through Russia's civilian nuclear expertise, Iran is gaining knowledge it can apply in its pursuit of weapons.

"The United States has been concerned that if that large of a reactor complex is built at Bushehr, then the Iranians would acquire essentially enough knowledge and information in the operation of those reactors that we would be creating a cadre of experts," said Rose Gottemoeller, an Energy Department official in the Clinton administration who now is with the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

More oversight urged

The United States wants Iran to submit to surprise unconditional IAEA inspections and has pushed the international agency to support its contention that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapons program.

On Monday, IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei will discuss with the IAEA Board of Governors an agency report that, according to news reports, says Iran is cooperating with reviews of its nuclear program but has failed to fully account for its uranium, how it was processed and where it was stored.

Last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin strongly urged Iran to agree to additional IAEA oversight -- something Iran has refused to do.

But despite the U.S. pressure, Putin told reporters at a summit of world leaders earlier this month in France that Iran "is our neighbor, and we shall continue to cooperate."

The nuclear power facility Russia is building in the Persian Gulf city of Bushehr is scheduled to be completed in 2004.

Some Russian analysts argue that Iran could not have made the sophisticated leap from a civilian energy program to a weapons program through the Bushehr project alone. It would require technical knowledge they say the Iranians don't yet have.

"It's like going from a Russian Zhiguli [a cheap compact car] to a Ferrari," said Vladimir Novikov of the Moscow-based Russian Institute for Strategic Studies.

Russian analysts point out that Russia also has negotiated a fuel cycle deal with Iran, meaning Tehran must purchase nuclear fuel from Russia and return it after it has been used. If finalized -- Iran has yet to sign the deal -- such an arrangement would keep the Iranians from reprocessing the spent nuclear fuel to use in a nuclear bomb.

By trying to clamp down on civilian projects like Bushehr, Russian officials argue, the United States will force Iran to search elsewhere for nuclear technology.

"Isolating Iran from peaceful nuclear cooperation, as the U.S. and some of its partners are insisting, can only bring negative results," Deputy Minister for Atomic Energy Andrei Malishev said in an interview conducted by e-mail.

The Bushehr program is a major moneymaker. According to a report by the PIR Center, about 300 Russian companies and 20,000 people have been involved in building the Bushehr reactor complex. The Russian Ministry of Atomic Affairs says the project is worth about $1 billion.

"It's our money. Who will give us a billion just like that?" asked Russian parliamentarian Eduard Nigmatullin, a strong backer of the Bushehr project.

A balancing act

In a recent speech, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said Putin agreed at the G-8 summit in France not to ship nuclear fuel to Bushehr unless Iran signs additional IAEA protocols allowing more monitoring.

Senior Russian officials swiftly replied that Russia wants Iran's agreement on the protocols but would ship the fuel regardless.

The incident illustrates the balancing act Putin must play between the demands of his powerful nuclear industry and serious concern about having a potential nuclear threat so close to Russia's borders. He must proceed without appearing to abandon a significant Russian foreign policy goal simply to appease the United States -- an important consideration for a man who is running for re-election next year.

Analysts say the United States also has failed to offer Russia anything concrete in return for giving up Bushehr.

"Where's the beef?" asked Victor Mizin, an analyst with the Monterey Institute of International Studies who served for 20 years in the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "The U.S. is not ready to suggest something really enticing for the Russian side to jettison this Iranian deal."

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