MOSCOW – Twice in the past month Russia has dealt a blow to the Bush administration’s efforts to limit the spread of nuclear fuels and curtail trafficking in weapons of mass destruction.
Russia’s nuclear energy minister confirmed Friday that Moscow will override U.S. objections and ship nuclear fuel to a Russian-built reactor in Iran.
An agreement with Tehran should be complete “in about two weeks,” said the minister, Alexander Rumyantsev. He expects to sign the accord when he visits the Bushehr reactor next month.
The Bush administration believes Tehran is seeking nuclear weapons and fears the new reactor will be used in that effort.
Earlier this month, despite some very public arm-twisting by American diplomats, Moscow refused to sign on to the U.S.-backed Proliferation Security Initiative. That program, with 11 signatories so far, would allow participating countries to board ships at sea, force down aircraft or stop trains or vehicles suspected of carrying weapons of mass destruction or related materials.
The Russians have questioned the legalities of such interdictions, especially in international waters or airspace. But U.S. diplomats say the initiative resembles any number of agreements struck with Caribbean nations to halt drug trafficking.
“It’s not like we’re going to run up the Jolly Roger and sweep the seas,” said one American diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We think the Russians understand the importance of this. We’d like their involvement at the fullest possible level.”
Russia is the only member of the G8 not to have joined the initiative. With its numerous reactors and a massive arsenal, Russia is the world’s leading nuclear power along with the United States.
The two countries cooperate on a number of programs intended to protect nuclear facilities, weapons and stockpiles across the former Soviet Union. But they have strong differences over Iran.
A senior U.S. diplomat, who also asked not to be named, said the amount of Russian fuel supplied to Bushehr eventually would be “enough for several nuclear weapons.”
In a speech Wednesday, President Bush said Iran continued to be “unwilling to abandon a uranium-enrichment program capable of producing material for nuclear weapons.”
But Moscow and Tehran say the billion-dollar Bushehr reactor, which could become operational next year, will only provide electricity.
In what would be a further insult to Washington, Rumyantsev is expected to discuss the possibility of Russia building a second reactor in Iran.
“The United States has criticized us and will continue to criticize us,” Rumyantsev said in Moscow. “They say Iran seeks nuclear weapons under the cover of our peaceful technology transfer, but we keep telling them they’ve got that wrong.
“We think we abide by all international laws” banning the proliferation of nuclear technologies.
Russia and Iran haggled for months over the details of the fuel-supply agreement. At one point, in defiance of international protocols, the Iranians demanded that the Russians buy back the spent fuel from Bushehr. Tehran finally agreed to sign an additional protocol guaranteeing the return of the spent fuel to Russia without payment, which opened the way for the final agreement.
Experts familiar with the negotiations think Moscow pressed for the agreement over fears of being supplanted in Iran by a European nuclear-fuel supplier.
The Iranian government has agreed to unannounced inspections and comprehensive monitoring of Bushehr by the International Atomic Energy Agency. But the Bush administration is far from reassured.
“They can withdraw from the nuclear weapons conventions and expel the IAEA inspectors just like that,” a U.S. official said, snapping his fingers. “Lots of countries sign these conventions and then happily violate them.
“What happens if Iran doesn’t comply?” the official went on, speaking on condition of anonymity. “There’s no such thing as a proliferation-proof reactor.”