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U.S./Russia: Analysts Agree Now Is Time To Resolve Standoff Over Iran's Bushehr Plant

  • Francesca Mereu

U.S. and Russian experts met in Moscow yesterday to discuss ways to improve cooperation regarding Iran, a major source of contention between the two countries. The U.S. believes Russia's $800 million deal to help build Iran's Bushehr nuclear-power plant could help Tehran develop nuclear weapons. Moscow denies the project can be exploited for that purpose.

Moscow, 12 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Top U.S. and Russian experts met in Moscow yesterday to discuss fresh ideas to resolve a standoff between Russia and the United States over Moscow's nuclear cooperation with Iran.

Robert Einhorn is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, a U.S.-based think tank, who also served in the administration of former U.S. President Bill Clinton. Einhorn believes the U.S. should soften its stance on the Bushehr project and that its "zero-tolerance approach" will not work. "Russia is too committed to complete the Bushehr project, and it has got a strong economic and, I think, political stake in carrying that project to fruition. So I think it is time that we adopt a new approach. In our view, the U.S. should agree to a full range of nuclear cooperative activities with Russia. And it should do it despite the completion of the Bushehr project, provided Iran is prepared to accept certain critical restrictions on its own nuclear activities, and it is also prepared to accept strong means of verification," Einhorn said.

In turn, Einhorn said, Russia should promise to confine its activities to the Bushehr project and should guarantee to supply and remove all spent fuel. Such fuel worries the U.S., since it believes Iran wants to use it to develop its own nuclear weapons.

Moreover, Einhorn said, Russia should convince Iran to sign an additional International Atomic Energy Agency protocol on intrusive inspections and to make a commitment to give up other nuclear activities.

After the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the U.S. established an embargo on nuclear cooperation with Iran, including civilian nuclear cooperation, since the U.S. believed the Islamic Republic was secretly interested in acquiring nuclear weapons.

Gary Samore is a senior fellow at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies and a former official on proliferation issues in the Clinton administration. Samore says the U.S. effort to establish an embargo has been successful and that all major nuclear powers, except Russia, have agreed not to assist Iran. "All the major nuclear suppliers -- the European countries, India, China -- have all agreed not to provide any nuclear cooperation with Iran whatsoever, including peaceful cooperation. The only country that has made an exception is Russia. And the issue of Russian nuclear cooperation with Iran became one of the most contentious and difficult issues between the United States and Russia during the Clinton administration. And it has now begun to re-emerge again as a very important issue between [U.S. President George W.] Bush and [Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin," Samore said.

Russia previously argued that the kind of light-water technology it wanted to provide to Iran was the same kind of technology the U.S. had agreed to provide to North Korea in 1994.

In 1995, the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy signed an $800 million agreement with Iran to finish one unit of the Bushehr reactor. Samore said Washington became particularly angry when it learned the Ministry of Atomic Energy had also agreed to provide Iran with an entire nuclear-fuel cycle, including additional power reactors, water-research reactors, fuel-fabrication and production facilities, and a facility to enrich uranium.

To the U.S., Samore said, it was further proof that Iran didn't want to use the facility for civilian purposes. "In Washington's view, this confirmed the suspicion that Iran was using nuclear power as a pretext, as a cover to obtain fuel-cycle technology that could be used to support a nuclear-weapons program, and that the [Russian] Ministry of Atomic Energy was willing to provide this sensitive technology as part of a nuclear-power package," Samore said.

In 1995, the U.S. and Russia worked out an agreement -- signed by then-U.S. Vice President Al Gore and Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin -- under which Russia agreed to limit its nuclear cooperation with Iran to the single unit of the Bushehr reactor.

In 1998, however, when Yevgenii Adamov took over the Ministry of Atomic Energy, he opposed the Gore-Chernomyrdin agreement and advocated the expansion of nuclear cooperation with Iran beyond the Bushehr reactor. Samore said the Russian authorities "did not put a very high priority on halting the leakage of nuclear technology to Iran."

Russian experts at the conference say the U.S. claims of Iran's intentions suffer from a lack of verifiable information, and cited Putin's statements to Bush during their May summit in Moscow that Russian cooperation with Iran is limited to the civilian and not the military sphere.

Vladimir Orlov, the head of the PIR Center for Policy Studies in Russia, which organized the conference, said the United States should be concerned not only about Iran, but other countries, as well, such as Saudi Arabia.

The Russian and U.S. experts do agree, however, that now is the right moment for Moscow and Washington to resolve the issue over Bushehr, noting that relations have changed for the better after 11 September.

Samore said: "I think that the U.S. and Russia's overall political relationship has been the wake of the 11 September terrorist attacks. I think that creates an opportunity that we haven't had before, to resolve this issue in a way that is satisfying to both sides."