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Iran: Tehran Says Nuclear Deal With Russia To Be Signed Next Week

Bushehr nuclear plant Iran's Atomic Energy Organization says an agreement on the return of spent nuclear fuel from its Bushehr nuclear plant to Russia will be signed next week. The signing of the protocol, which is considered as one of the main remaining obstacles to the start-up of Iran 's first nuclear reactor, has been delayed several times in the past, raising doubts among some analysts that it will now actually take place.

Prague, 18 February 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The deputy head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Assadollah Saburi, said yesterday that the nuclear fuel deal will be signed on 26 February during a visit by the head of the Russian Atomic Energy Agency.

Russia’s nuclear chief, Aleksandr Rumyantsev, who is due in Tehran next week, confirmed yesterday that the protocol is ready for signature.

Under the agreement, spent nuclear fuel from Iran’s sole nuclear power plant near the Persian Gulf port city of Bushehr would be returned to Russia. Moscow has called the repatriation accord a safeguard that should dispel U.S. and international concern that Iran could reprocess the fuel and extract plutonium from it for use in making nuclear bombs.

In the past, the signing of the fuel-return deal has been delayed several times because of what was described by both sides as technical and financial and safety issues. Some observers say U.S. pressure on Russia over its nuclear cooperation with Iran also might be why Moscow has at times appeared to move slowly toward finalizing the accord.

But given the continuing atmosphere of international tension over Iran’s nuclear activities, some analysts say they still remain to be convinced the signing will actually take place next week as announced. A diplomat in Vienna who closely follows nuclear affairs told RFE/RL on condition of annonymity that it is highly unlikely that “Russia would consummate this deal until the concerns about Iran’s nuclear program are more resolved.” Vienna is the headquarters of the UN’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Some analysts say they consider it unlikely that Moscow will proceed with the signing so long as European states continue to negotiate with Iran over concerns Tehran might be engaged in “dual-use” activities that could lead to weapons development. Three key EU states -- Great Britain, France, and Germany -- are asking Tehran to give up uranium enrichment and other dual-use programs in exchange for trade incentives and European help with Iran’s commercial nuclear energy program.

Dr. Hooman Peimani, a senior research fellow at the Bradford University’s Center for International Cooperation and Security in England, believes no signing will take place before a final European-Iranian nuclear agreement. The three EU states and Iran began talks in November with no certainty they can reach an agreement and no deadline for doing so.

“One of the reasons why Russia had not been to eager to resolve this issue till now, are the uncertainties about Iran’s nuclear program, currently the EU countries are negotiating with Iran , The IAEA is also supervising. I don’t think Russia would sign the agreement so long as the EU has not reached an agreement with Iran that is acceptable for both sides and also so long as concerns over Iran’s nuclear program are not resolved,” Peimani said.

During a meeting yesterday with Iran’s top nuclear negotiator Hassan Rowhani, who is visiting Moscow, Russian Security Council Secretary Igor Ivanov expressed support for the Iran/EU talks and said that Iran should continue a “constructive dialogue” with the IAEA.

Analysts say that in deciding whether to sign the accord, Russia has had to balance international concern with its own high commercial interest in obtaining Iranian nuclear contracts. Moscow has deflected some international criticism by maintaining its nuclear cooperation with Iran is regulated by international law and the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

Russia is building the Bushehr plant as part of a deal that could bring Moscow additional, similar construction projects in the future. Last year the head of the Russian Federation’s Atomic Energy Agency said that Russia may build seven more nuclear plants in Iran.

Alex Vatanka is a regional expert and the editor of Jane’s Sentinel Security Assessments. He said Russia’s prospects for more work are not yet firm, but hopes are high.

“At this stage they’re probably in a wait and see position but if there is a sort of an agreement that if the Iranians are allowed to continue to have a [civilian] nuclear program then the Russians would like to continue and probably expand their nuclear cooperation with the Iranians," Vatanka said.

He added that Russia’s interest in Iran is not only economic but also part of its political strategy for developing allies in the region. “When I talk to Russians about this they say their dealing with Iran is purely economic," he said. "I don’t think that’s the case but if you look at Russian statements about seven power plants in Iran, surely there will be economic value particularly given the fact that they don’t have a lot of customers for their nuclear technology and Iran is probably the biggest one of all the markets available to them. But look also at what Russia is likely to want to achieve from having closer ties with Iran, and that is to have a country in the Middle East that it can refer to as its close ally.”

The United States, which accuses Iran of trying to secretly develop nuclear weapons, says Iran has no need for nuclear energy because of it’s large oil reserves.

But Iranian officials reject that accusation. Iran’s Ambassador to the United Kingdom Mohammad Hossein Adeli writes in a commentary in today’s "Financial Times" that “if Iran does not resort to alternative sources of energy, including nuclear, its development will be hampered.”

Iran’s nuclear activities are set to be reviewed during the IAEA board of governors meeting, which starts on 28 March. The agency’s chief said earlier this week there have been no discoveries in the past six months to substantiate claims that Tehran is secretly developing a nuclear bomb.

The 1,000–megawatt Bushehr reactor is due to start up in the beginning of 2006. Russian officials say the nuclear fuel for the plant will be supplied after the signing of the agreement.

An IAEA spokesman told RFE/RL that the agency will monitor the Bushehr’s plant as a soon as it becomes operational.