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– Wendy Sherman
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State
June 2, 2022
Iran, Russia Reach Nuclear Agreement
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Paul Kerr

The conclusion of an agreement in which Russia will supply Iran with nuclear fuel for a 1,000-megawatt light-water nuclear power reactor marks the latest step in a decade-long controversy.

Russian Federal Agency for Atomic Energy Director Alexander Rumyantsev announced Feb. 27 that Tehran and Moscow had finally signed off on a deal to supply fuel for the reactor near the southern Iranian city of Bushehr for a period of 10 years. Although the United States has long opposed the reactor project, the Bush administration did not publicly criticize the agreement.

In 1995, Russia agreed to finish the reactor project, which is widely reported to be worth about $800 million. The original German contractor abandoned the project following Iran’s 1979 revolution.

A final deal was delayed several times as the two sides negotiated a provision that requires Iran to return the spent reactor fuel to Russia. The arrangement was designed to reduce the risk that Iran will separate plutonium from the spent fuel. Separated plutonium can be used as fissile material in nuclear weapons. (See ACT, October 2003.)

Iran does not have a known facility for reprocessing spent nuclear fuel to obtain plutonium, although Tehran has conducted related experiments.

Although the full fresh-fuel delivery schedule has not been made public, Rumyantsev said that the first shipment will occur “some six months” before the reactor begins operation in late 2006. In a March 21 interview with Arms Control Today, a Russian government nuclear expert estimated that the spent fuel will not go back to Russia until 2011 at the earliest. The returned fuel will then be stored at a facility in the Russian city of Zheleznogorsk (formerly Krasnoyarsk-26).

There is some question, however, as to how long the spent fuel will need to remain in cooling ponds located in Iran before being sent to Russia. The Russian official’s estimate assumes that the fuel needs two years to cool. However, other Russian officials have told their U.S. counterparts that the fuel must stay in Iran between three and five years, a Department of State official told Arms Control Today March 21.

Both Russian and Iranian officials said the governments remain engaged in discussions about the possibility that Moscow might build additional reactors for Tehran.

Light-water nuclear reactors are considered more proliferation-resistant than other types of reactors. But the United States had wanted Russia to abandon the Bushehr project altogether, arguing that Moscow’s assistance would allow Iran to acquire expertise and dual-use technology that could aid it in developing a nuclear weapons program.

Undersecretary of State for International Security and Arms Control John Bolton told the House International Relations Committee in June 2003 that Iran could build “over 80 nuclear weapons” if it had access to sufficient fuel, operated the reactor for five to six years, and chose to withdraw from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). This estimate assumes that Iran possesses a reprocessing facility.

The project was a point of contention during a May 2002 meeting between President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin. But U.S. officials said two months later that Washington would not publicly object to the reactor if Moscow took steps, such as requiring the spent fuel’s return, to mitigate the project’s proliferation risks, the State Department official said. Indeed, neither Bush nor Putin mentioned the issue during a joint press conference following a Feb. 24 bilateral meeting.

Russia contends that the reactor will not pose a proliferation risk because it will operate under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards.

IAEA safeguards agreements require states-parties to the NPT to allow the agency to monitor their declared civilian nuclear activities to ensure that they are not diverted to military use. Iran also signed an additional protocol to its safeguards agreement in 2003. That protocol augments the agency’s authority to detect clandestine nuclear activities. Tehran has agreed to abide by its provisions until Iran’s parliament ratifies the agreement.

Washington Reacts
Speaking to reporters Feb. 28, State Department spokesperson Adam Ereli would not say whether Washington approves of the deal. But he characterized it as representing a “convergence…of views between the United States and Russia about the problem posed by Iran’s nuclear program.”

The Bush administration has repeatedly asked Russia to help pressure Iran to end the latter’s uranium-enrichment program, which Washington says is a cover for a nuclear weapons program. Despite the recent fuel-supply deal, Tehran has said that it will continue to develop its own nuclear fuel cycle facilities.

The IAEA discovered in 2003 that Iran had an extensive, clandestine uranium-enrichment program. Tehran has suspended this program for the duration of negotiations with France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. The two sides are attempting to reach a long-term agreement that is to include “objective guarantees that Iran’s nuclear program is exclusively for peaceful purposes.”

Uranium enrichment increases the concentration of the uranium-235 isotope to produce either low-enriched uranium (LEU) for civilian nuclear reactor fuel or highly enriched uranium (HEU). If enriched to high enough levels, HEU can be used as fissile material in nuclear weapons. The Bushehr reactor uses LEU.

A senior administration official told reporters in February that Russia has “made it clear” that it will not complete the reactor until “the Iranians have met all their international obligations.” Additionally, the State Department official suggested that Russia might use the fuel agreement as leverage to persuade Iran to cooperate with the Europeans.

Russia’s enthusiasm for such tactics is difficult to gauge. Putin displayed little alarm over Iran’s nuclear programs last month, stating that “Iran does not intend to produce nuclear arms.” Moreover, Moscow may not view Iran’s compliance with its European interlocutors’ demands as an “international obligation” because Iran is not legally obligated to suspend or dismantle its uranium-enrichment program.

Nevertheless, Foreign Minster Sergey Lavrov explicitly stated March 1 that Iran should maintain its suspension, and Putin told reporters March 18 that Russia supports the Europeans’ negotiations.

The Bush administration previously said Moscow should condition the fuel supply agreement on Tehran’s conclusion of its additional protocol. Moscow hinted at such conditions, but the extent to which it linked the two issues is unclear.