U.S. Irked by Potential Growth in Russian Nuclear Aid to Iran

September 2002

By Paul Kerr

Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov signed a draft document July 26 that includes plans to build five nuclear reactors in Iran in addition to the reactor currently under construction near the Iranian city of Bushehr, according to U.S. and Russian sources. The document created friction between Moscow and Washington, which has opposed Russian nuclear assistance to Iran.

The draft document was released shortly before Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham and John Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, arrived in Moscow for a series of meetings with Russian officials concerning nonproliferation issues. Abraham and Bolton expressed opposition to the proposal to expand nuclear cooperation at a July 31 meeting, arguing that building the reactors might help Iran develop nuclear weapons, according to a Bush administration official. “We will continue to urge the Russian government to take a clear position against any plan to build additional nuclear reactors in Iran,” the official said.

The reactors proposal was particularly controversial because of its timing and approval by high-level government officials. The announcement “that Russia intended to pursue additional nuclear cooperation with Iran was inconsistent with the assurance that Putin gave Bush,” an administration official said August 15, referring to a pledge to combat proliferation that the U.S. and Russian presidents made at the G-8 summit in June.

However, presidents Bush and Putin had acknowledged their disagreement about Russian nuclear aid to Iran at the May 24 signing ceremony for the new U.S.-Russia nuclear arms reduction treaty. Putin stated during May meetings with Bush that Russia would continue with the Bushehr project, but no plans for additional reactors were discussed. (See ACT, June 2002).

Russian officials downplayed the proposal for additional reactors after meeting with Bolton and Abraham. Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Alexander Yakovenko stated July 31 that “the prospects of cooperation with Iran in the field of peaceful uses of the atom, [speak] only of the available potentialities, the realization of which depends on many factors, including, of course, political.”

The First Deputy Atomic Energy Minister, Lev Ryabev, said August 13 that “no concrete agreements have been achieved…. No contracts have been signed,” according to the Russian news agency Interfax. “I would not like to say that we will build only one reactor. But I also would not like to say that we will certainly build six or any other number of reactors, since any such statements would be premature,” he added.

Although there is no formal agreement, Iran stated its belief that Russia will follow through on the terms of the draft proposal. The plan also calls for expanding trade and industrial and technical cooperation between Moscow and Tehran. According to the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency, Iranian ambassador to Russia Gholamreza Shafei stated August 9 that “the Russian government has approved of the plan, and it has no intention of backtracking on the issue of cooperation with Iran.”

Russia’s cooperation with Iran on nuclear power projects has long been a source of concern for the United States. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Marshall Billingslea testified before the Senate July 29 that “Iran is aggressively pursuing nuclear weapons, and we are concerned that the Bushehr nuclear power project is, in reality, a pretext for the creation of an infrastructure designed to help Tehran acquire atomic weapons.” The CIA has argued that cooperation on civilian nuclear projects with Russia could provide Iran with knowledge that could be used to build nuclear weapons. These concerns have been magnified by Iran’s advancing missile program and its inclusion on the State Department’s list of states sponsoring terrorism.

Iran and Russia argue that the Bushehr reactor project poses no proliferation threat. “This cooperation bears an entirely peaceful and mutually beneficial character and is fully consistent with all the international obligations of Russia, primarily in the domain of nuclear nonproliferation,” Yakovenko said. Iran is a member of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and the reactors are subject to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards.

The IAEA has stated that it “has not found any evidence of diversion of nuclear material placed under safeguards in Iran.” The agency noted, however, that Iran has not concluded an Additional Protocol designed to strengthen the IAEA’s ability to discover clandestine nuclear weapons programs. The Additional Protocol provides for more rigorous inspections, including inspections of undeclared nuclear facilities.

Moscow has said that it will take steps to ensure that spent fuel from the Bushehr reactor would not be used for nuclear weapons. Russia announced August 21 that it had signed an agreement with Iran to take back spent fuel from the reactor, Agence France-Presse reported. Russian Deputy Atomic Energy Minister Andrei Malyshev said August 5 that the reactor would be operational in June 2004, according to Interfax.