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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 66, September 2002

News Review

US Turns Up Heat on Russia over Iran

On July 31, US Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham and Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton visited Moscow for three days of discussions reportedly dominated by Russia's continued support for Iran's nuclear energy programme. Russia is currently helping Iran build a 1,000-megawatt nuclear reactor at Bushehr. Construction of the $800 million facility is scheduled for completion in December 2003, with the reactor entering into service in 2005. On July 26, Moscow surprised many observers by releasing a 10-year plan for Russian-Iran cooperation envisaging the construction of as many as five additional reactors at the Bushehr site.

On August 1, after meeting Russian Nuclear Energy Minister Alexander Rumyantsev, Abraham told reporters: "The expansion of Russian nuclear cooperation with Iran remains an issue of utmost concern to us. It has been raised to the highest levels, we are in the middle of sensitive discussions on this matter. ... We have long been concerned that Iran's only interest in nuclear civil power, given its vast domestic energy resources, is to support its nuclear weapons programme. For that reason, we have consistently urged Russia to cease all nuclear cooperation with Iran, including its assistance to the reactor in Bushehr." Tehran, Abraham alleged, was "aggressively pursuing nuclear weapons as well as [other] weapons of mass destruction". Bolton's clearest public views on the matter had been expressed before the visit, during a speech in New York on June 10: "Over the years [Russia] has pursued policies that have led, and continue to lead in our judgment, to...[WMD] proliferation... It cannot be in Russia's own interest to have a nuclear-capable, ballistic missile-equipped Iran just south of its border. It cannot be in Russia's interest to have any of the rogue states that seek weapons of mass destruction to acquire them..."

On August 2, a statement from the Ministry of Atomic Energy (MinAtom) described the 10-year plan released on July 26 as a "draft long-term programme" which "merely talks about existing technical possibilities", the "implementation" of which "will depend on many factors, including political".

On July 31, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Alexander Yakovenko answered a question from CNN about the status and significance of the 10-year plan:

"Question: 'What are the prospects of Russian cooperation with Iran in the field of the peaceful atom in the context of the elaboration of a Long-Term Program for the Development of Trade, and Economic, Industrial and Technical Cooperation Between Russia and Iran for the period till...2012?'

Yakovenko: 'The position of Russia on cooperation with Iran in the nuclear field remains unchanged. This cooperation bears an entirely peaceful and mutually beneficial character and is fully consistent with all the international obligations of Russia, primarily in the field of nuclear non-proliferation. The whole activity of Iran in the nuclear field as a party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons is under the control of the [International Atomic Energy] Agency, which, as is known, has identified no violations by Iran of its obligations. At the present time we are collaborating with Iran in the construction of a nuclear power plant in Bushehr and in the ensuring of its nuclear safety. As to the prospects of cooperation with Iran in the field of peaceful uses of the atom, the Long-Term Program...speaks only of the available potentialities...'"

Moscow is also seeking to assuage US concerns by committing itself to returning spent fuel from Bushehr to Russia. On July 12, Minister Rumyantsev stated: "We'll provide them with fresh fuel and take back the spent". It is not clear, however, whether this arrangement has been accepted, even in principle, by Tehran; indeed, Rumyantsev added that no fuel will be provided for the reactor "until the signed regulations are in place". On June 24, The Guardian quoted a MinAtom document, prepared for the Kremlin, stating only that "negotiations are taking place on the return of the spent nuclear fuel to the Russian Federation." The newspaper quoted Tobias Muenchmeyer, a nuclear analyst with Greenpeace in Berlin, arguing that if Tehran managed to retain the spent fuel, it "would be in possession of weapons-usable material. For a country like Iran, it would not be difficult to reprocess the spent fuel and isolate the plutonium. It would be a matter of weeks, not months."

On August 21, Rumyantsev announced that full agreement had been reached with Iran on Russian recovery of spent fuel produced at Bushehr. See next issue for details and reaction.

Notes: on July 25, Deputy Defence Minister Mikhail Dmitriyev insisted that Russian sales of conventional weapons to Iran - another, though lesser, bone of contention with Washington - would continue: "We aren't talking about large amounts of weapons shipments, but there are some prospects for us. We can provide Iran with defence systems that remain within the framework of control regimes. If someone thought that Russia would establish some kind of covert cooperation with Iran that would breach international agreements, he made a serious mistake. This could never happen."

Speaking in Tehran on July 29, Javier Solana, the European Union's High Representative on Foreign and Security Policy, stressed that concerns over Iran's perceived poor record on non-proliferation was of concern to Brussels as well as Washington: "EU-Iran relations can never reach their full potential if we do not eliminate problems that hamper such a positive development. One is non-proliferation [and] acquisition of weapons of mass destruction. ... Differences of this nature are a serious obstacle to closer relations."

Reports: US official says US-Russia relations depend on whether Moscow halts transfer of banned weapons that could be used by terrorists, Associated Press, June 10; Russia fails to secure Tehran nuclear deal, The Guardian, June 24; Russia vows to recover nuclear fuel, Associated Press, July 12; Anxiety over Iranian missile launch, BBC News Online, July 16; Top Russian military official promises to sell conventional weapons to Iran, Associated Press, July 25; Russia expands nuke ties with Iran, Associated Press, July 26; Russian government plans new nuclear, oil cooperation with Iran despite US opposition, Associated Press, July 27; EU says Middle East and arms hamper ties with Iran, Reuters, July 29; US officials arrive in Moscow, Associated Press, July 30; Remarks by Alexander Yakovenko, official spokesman of Russia's Ministry of Foreign affairs, July 31, 2002, Russian Foreign Ministry transcript; Americans meet Russia nuke chief, Associated Press, July 31; 'Russia must end Iran nuclear deal', BBC News Online, August 1; Russian nuclear ministry says plan to build more nuclear reactors in Iran could be revised, Associated Press, August 2; Russia, US play down dispute over Iran, Reuters, August 2; Russians assure US on Iran, Washington Post, August 3; Iran-Russia - ministers formalize spent-fuel agreement, Global Security Newswire, August 22.

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© 2002 The Acronym Institute.