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The Bushehr conundrum

Print edition : Aug 17, 2002

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Russia is resisting U.S. pressure on the issue of helping Iran construct its first nuclear reactor.

WHEN the Russian government first announced that it would provide the expertise and much of the materiel to construct Iran's first nuclear power plant in the city of Bushehr, the United States was taken aback. From the time of former President Ronald Reagan, successive U.S. administrations had seen to it that the Iranian nuclear project was stalled at the preliminary stage itself.

The plan for a nuclear reactor was conceived during the rule of the late Shah of Iran. Iran those days was the chief gendarme of the West in the region. West Germany, which was initially involved in the Bushehr project, backed out after the Islamist Revolution in Iran under Ayatollah Khomeini. Iran had turned to many countries including India for help in constructing the 1,000-megawatt power plant. But the arm-twisting tactics of the U.S. prevented most countries from participating in the Iranian nuclear power project.

Senior Iranian nuclear scientists had told this writer during a visit to Teheran in the mid-1990s that much of the country was unsuitable for the construction of big hydro-electric dams as the region around the capital was prone to frequent earthquakes. Iran, they said, faced a serious shortfall in power and the only long-term answer was nuclear energy.

Russia stepped in to help in the mid-1990s after relations between the two countries improved. Moscow and Teheran had cooperated in restoring peace in Tajikistan. Both countries were vehemently opposed to the Taliban in Afghanistan. Iran was also paying top dollars to Moscow for the project. The cost of the Bushehr project is around $800 million.

At the Russia-U.S. summit between Presidents George Bush and Vladimir Putin in Moscow in May this year, the U.S. President had publicly stated that he would like the Russian government to dissociate itself from the project. By then Bush had clubbed Iran, along with Iraq and North Korea, in the so-called "axis of evil". His predecessor Bill Clinton had in the last years of his Presidency, tried to build bridges with Iran in order to strengthen the hands of the reformist politicians led by President Mohammed Khatami. But all that changed after September 11, despite Iran being generally supportive of the initial U.S. military actions in Afghanistan. Iran was among the first countries to offer condolences to the U.S. government after September 11.

But the Bush administration had apparently made up its mind. Its closest ally, Israel, has been consistently maintaining that the most dangerous enemy of the West in the region is Iran, not Iraq. With the tacit approval of the U.S., Israel is allowed to retain its huge undeclared nuclear arsenal. The Bush administration seems to have factored in Israeli security perceptions while putting Iran on top of its enemy list.

Initially there were some fears that Moscow would capitulate under pressure from Washington in the matter of the Bushehr project, given the new bonhomie between Bush and Putin after September 11. Bush was known to be working on Putin to renege on the Iran deal. In a blatant attempt to influence Moscow to dump Teheran, Washington agreed to allocate a $20-billion aid package to Russia to scrap its weapons of mass destruction. In mid-July, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell even assured the U.S. Senate that Washington and Moscow had "made progress" in the matter of the Iranian nuclear project.

At the joint press conference with President Bush in Moscow, President Putin had made it clear that there was no question of Moscow backtracking on the deal. The Russian President had used the opportunity to emphasise that the Bushehr nuclear power station was only a civilian project. But the U.S. continues to maintain, despite strong denials from Teheran, that the plant is a dual purpose one and that Iran would be in possession of a nuclear weapon in a few years' time.

U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, who was on an official visit to Moscow in the first week of August, also tried to pressure Russia into walking out of the deal. He was accompanied by the senior Under-Secretary of State, John Bolton. Before their arrival, Moscow had announced that it was planning to help Iran construct five more nuclear plants. The U.S. official repeated in Moscow that Iran was "aggressively pursuing nuclear weapons". He said that the U.S. had for long felt that Iran's interest in nuclear civil power was to support its nuclear weapons programme.

However, Russia's Deputy Atomic Energy Minister, Andrei Malyshev, has reaffirmed Moscow's position that cooperation with Iran in the field of atomic energy is an exclusively economic deal and does not amount to the export of weapon-grade technologies. The representative of Atomeneroproject, the company that is building the Bushehr atomic power plant, said in the first week of August that he expected the power plant to start loading fuel as planned by December 2003 and that the plant would be completed as per schedule by 2004.

At the end of July, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov gave his approval for a draft programme on trade and cooperation with Iran, much of which deals with the nuclear power sector. The Russian Nuclear Power Ministry has plans to build five nuclear power-generating units of 1,000 MW each apart from the current project. Four of them will be located at Bushehr, and one at Akhvaz, only 60 km from the Iraqi border.

Russian Nuclear Power Minister Alexander Rumyantsev has told the Russian media that the Bushehr plant when it begins operations, will be run only by Russian personnel "for a number of years". He revealed that a major clause in the agreement between the two countries is that all Russian nuclear fuel supplied to the Bushehr plant must, upon completion of its working cycle, be returned to Russia for processing and storage. Russia, he said, is fulfilling all its international obligations regarding the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and fissile materiel. The International Atomic Energy Agency has also made repeated checks on the Bushehr atomic plant this year to ensure that non-proliferation commitments are being met fully.

Russia has guaranteed that it will take back all the nuclear waste. Russian experts point out that in principle the level of uranium enrichment does not exceed 4.5 per cent in Russian reactors, whereas 90 per cent of enriched uranium is required for producing a nuclear bomb. The Russian Atomic Energy Ministry has explicitly stated that its cooperation with Iran is limited to building a nuclear power plant and training local experts to service it. However, it said that it cannot include the clause demanded by the West that Iran pledge that it will not develop its own nuclear technology. Officials of the Ministry said that such a decision involved the internal affairs of the Iranian government.

Spencer Abraham told a press conference in Moscow that he regarded Russia's cooperation with Iran's nuclear programme with "utmost concern" and that he had conveyed these worries to the highest echelons of Russia's leadership.

However, Putin shows no signs of buckling under U.S pressure. Leading Russian analysts say that Kremlin's stand on the Iranian reactor issue will be its most important foreign policy decision to be taken by the country after September 11, 2001. A capitulation to Washington at this juncture would send the wrong signals to other countries with which Russia has strong defence and security ties. The U.S. demands on Moscow are being made at a time when war clouds are hanging over the region. A Kremlin spokesman said in the first week of August that Russia intended to maintain its existing bilateral cooperation programme with Iran. He said that the existing agreement with Teheran had "nothing to do with proliferation" and that Russia respected all its international obligations towards nuclear non-proliferation.

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