Although Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin signed a new nuclear arms reductions treaty and a joint declaration on May 24 in Moscow, the two leaders could not resolve longstanding U.S. concerns about Russian nuclear and missile cooperation with Iran. Instead, the two sides discussed the possibility of sending nuclear inspectors to Iran and agreed to establish a ministerial-level committee to examine the unresolved issues.
Speaking at the treaty signing with Putin, Bush told reporters that it is “in both our countries’ mutual interest that we solve this problem.” Bush said that he and Putin “spoke very frankly and honestly about the need to make sure that a nontransparent government run by radical clerics doesn’t get their hands on weapons of mass destruction.”
Russia’s construction of a nuclear power plant in the Iranian city of Bushehr has been a highly contentious issue since the early 1990s. Washington has been worried that Iran will covertly use the reactor to produce material for nuclear weapons. The United States has also alleged that Russia has been providing Tehran with technological assistance that could enhance Iran’s missile program.
During a May 26 interview on CNN’s Late Edition, Secretary of State Colin Powell acknowledged that differences between the two sides remain, saying, “The Russians say that they are not providing that kind of technology or equipment to the Iranians, and we have some evidence that they are.” To continue consulting on these issues, the two leaders decided to establish a regular consultative committee consisting of U.S. and Russian foreign and defense ministers, Powell said.
The leaders said that during their meeting Bush had pressed Putin on the Bushehr project, but at the treaty signing the Russian president insisted that Russian-Iranian cooperation does not undercut nonproliferation efforts but rather “focuses on problems of economic nature.” Putin went as far as comparing his country’s involvement with Bushehr to a U.S.-led effort to construct a civilian nuclear power plant in North Korea. “I’d like to point out also that the U.S. has taken a commitment upon themselves to build a similar nuclear power plant in North Korea, similar to Russia,” Putin said.
At a press conference in Paris on May 26, Bush said he believes Putin “is convinced” that construction of the power plant “will not lead to the spread of technologies that will enable Iran to develop weapons of mass destruction.” But Bush said that Putin was “willing to allow for international inspection teams to determine whether that’s true or not.” A senior administration official later clarified that Putin’s offer to allow inspections at Bushehr is still “a work in progress.”
Russia and Iran have long agreed that the Bushehr reactor would be constructed and operated in full accordance with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) nuclear accounting procedures and monitoring. The head of Iran’s parliamentary commission for energy, Hossein Afarideh, confirmed Iran’s intention to observe IAEA rules May 28, according to Iran’s state-run news agency. An IAEA team has already visited the Bushehr construction site, and regular inspections of the facility will occur four to six times a year after Russia supplies key nuclear materials, according to an IAEA spokesperson.
At the treaty signing ceremony, Putin also disputed U.S. charges that his country supports Iranian missile development efforts and said that he had told Bush that Iran and other countries have missile and nuclear programs largely built with Western support.
Washington considers Russian transfers of missile technology to Iran an offense violating both U.S. law and Russia’s international commitments and has sanctioned several Russian entities for providing such assistance, most recently in 1999. According to a January 2002 U.S. intelligence report, Russia provided Iran with ballistic missile-related goods and technical “know-how” throughout 2001. “Russian assistance likely supports Iranian efforts to develop new missiles and increase Tehran’s self-sufficiency in missile production,” the report said.