- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 27, 2002

Russia yesterday announced a dramatic expansion of its cooperation with Iran on building nuclear power plants, ignoring Bush administration concerns that the program could help Iran build a nuclear bomb.

The 10-year proposal for cooperation on nuclear power and oil exploration appears to have caught the U.S. government off guard. President Bush had appealed personally to Russian President Vladimir Putin about the Iranian program in May, and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told a Senate hearing just two weeks ago that Washington and Moscow had "made progress" in recent months in dealing with the issue.

Russia's $800 million contract to build a nuclear reactor just outside the southern Iranian port of Bushehr has been a prime irritant in rapidly improving U.S.-Russian relations. Iran is part of President Bush's "axis of evil" and U.S. Ambassador to Russia Alexander Vershbow earlier this week issued another pointed warning to the Kremlin about its ties to regimes hostile to the United States.

"Russia has to avoid letting its desire for commercial gain end up hastening the day that [Iran, Iraq and North Korea] can pose a threat that could not only destabilize their own region but undermine the security of the entire world," Mr. Vershbow said.

Yesterday's 12-page draft proposal, approved Wednesday night by Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, calls for Moscow to build as many as six nuclear reactors in Iran at Bushehr and at a second site in the city of Akhvaz.

In addition, Russian and Iranian energy firms would team up to expand oil drilling and exploration in the Caspian Sea region, improve transportation links, jointly produce a new passenger aircraft and cooperate on the launch of an Iranian communications satellite.

A State Department spokesman yesterday had no immediate comment on the Russian announcement but said he expected the topic to surface during yesterday's private talks of a top-level U.S.-Russian anti-terrorism panel that met in Annapolis.

Jon Wolfsthal, a top nonproliferation official in the Energy Department in the Clinton administration and now an analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, called the Russian announcement "very worrisome and very surprising."

"It's definitely the opposite of what a lot of people were saying, that the Russians were ready to pull out of Bushehr altogether because of U.S. pressure," he said.

Mr. Powell, testifying July 9 before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told lawmakers, "We think we are on the right path to making sure that the Russians don't continue to engage in this kind of activity."

Three days later, Russian Atomic Energy Minister Alexander Rumyantsev told reporters in Moscow that he did not see any future nuclear cooperation with Tehran after the current Bushehr reactor comes fully on line, which is expected in two years.

"We see no other future work with Iran besides [Bushehr]," Mr. Rumyantsev said.

But both Russia and Iran have repeatedly dismissed fears by the United States and Israel that the power plant at Bushehr could aid Iran's quest to obtain weapons-grade plutonium for military use.

The Bush administration also worries that the Bushehr project could provide a conduit for Russian nuclear specialists to be recruited into Iran's nuclear military effort.

Hassan Rowhani, secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, said Sunday that the Bushehr plant was being built to meet civilian needs and that the work was strictly monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

But in a sign of the strategic value Iran places on the Bushehr complex, The Washington Times in May reported that several batteries of U.S.-made Hawk surface-to-air missiles had been placed around the site.

Mr. Wolfsthal said the Bushehr project has provided huge revenues to the cash-strapped Russian nuclear-power ministry and that neither the Clinton administration nor the Bush administration has been able to persuade the Russians to drop the project.

"Russia has a lot of real incentives to cooperate with Iran, financially, politically, geopolitically," he said. "So far, all they've had from the United States are promises."

Question marks remain over the extent of the new Russia-Iran cooperation, despite yesterday's announcement in Moscow.

The program approved by Mr. Kasyanov is only a draft proposal and still must be formally signed by top Russian and Iranian officials. The Russian news agency Interfax, citing diplomatic sources in Moscow, said yesterday the draft document could be approved by the two countries before or at a meeting of a joint economic cooperation commission set for Tehran in September.

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