On January 14, Russia reaffirmed its intention to expand nuclear cooperation with Iran. Following a meeting between high-level Russian and Iranian defense officials, Russian Vice Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov announced that Iran may order an additional three nuclear reactors to supplement the existing light-water reactor project at Bushehr. Russian Energy Minister Yevgeny Adamov initially announced plans to conduct a feasibility study on the three additional reactors in November 1998, estimating that the proposed reactors would cost $3-4 billion. Iran is considering the offer, Adamov said January 26.
U.S. officials have expressed concern that civilian nuclear cooperation with Russia could aid Iran's efforts to clandestinely develop a military nuclear capability. Russia maintains that the projects pose no threat, citing Iran's compliance with IAEA safeguards as a state-party to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The United States secured agreement in 1995 from then-President Boris Yeltsin to abandon any militarily useful nuclear cooperation with Iran, specifically the transfer of a centrifuge enrichment plant originally guaranteed in the 1995 Bushehr protocol with Tehran.
Shortly following the Russian announcement, The New York Times reported that CIA Director George Tenet had briefed administration officials on a change in the agency's assessment of the advancement of Iran's nuclear weapons. Sources cited in the January 17 Times article stated that the change acknowledged an inability to confidently track Iranian clandestine acquisition of nuclear material and technology. As a result, the CIA can no longer rule out the possibility that Iran has acquired nuclear weapons, the report said.
Concern about the pace of Iran's nuclear program is not new. In his annual threat assessment before the Senate Armed Services Committee in February 1999, Tenet urged vigilance "against the possibility of a proliferation surprise" in Iran. U.S. intelligence estimates, including the 1998 report of the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States (the "Rumsfeld Report"), have projected a 10-year timeline for the indigenous production of adequate fissile material stocks for a few weapons should Iran abandon IAEA safeguards. However, acquisition of such material from outside sources could substantially speed the weaponization process.