- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 31, 2002

Iran sounded a defiant note yesterday as senior U.S. officials arrived in Moscow on a mission to curb Russia's plans for a dramatic expansion of nuclear cooperation with Tehran.

Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham and Undersecretary of State John Bolton are meeting with their Russian counterparts just days after the Kremlin announced a surprise long-term cooperation package with Iran that included the construction of up to six nuclear reactors.

Russia's $800 million deal to build a 1,000-megawatt nuclear power plant near the southern Iranian port town of Bushehr has already emerged as a prime irritant in U.S.-Russian relations, with the Bush administration contending that the Iranians could use the expertise and contacts from the deal to build nuclear bombs.

State Department deputy spokesman Philip Reeker yesterday dismissed as "totally hypothetical" press reports that the United States and Israel have considered a pre-emptive military strike against Bushehr.

A commentary in the state-controlled Tehran Times, an English-language newspaper, said Iran's government would respond in kind to any military action against the Bushehr plant, which is scheduled to come on line within five years.

"Iran will definitely not sit by idly if its nuclear installations are attacked," the paper said, defending the project as intended for civilian power needs. "It is a matter of national pride and security."

The Washington Times reported in May that Iran had placed batteries of U.S.-made Hawk surface-to-air missiles around the Bushehr installation.

Mr. Reeker took a low-key view of the Russian government's announcement of expansion of economic and nuclear cooperation with Iran. "Contributing to Iranian nuclear ambitions," he said, "would be counterproductive, I think, to Russia's broader strategic interests."

But the Pentagon has been more pointed in its public comments.

"This is a pressing matter that has very much got the administration's attention," Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Marshall Billingslea told a Senate hearing Monday. He argued that Iran, with vast oil and natural gas reserves, is using Bushehr "as a pretext for the creation of an infrastructure designed to help Tehran acquire atomic weapons."

"If we were upset about one reactor at Bushehr, you can imagine how upset we would be at the prospect of five or six," he added.

The Moscow trips by Mr. Bolton and Mr. Abraham had been scheduled long before last week's Russian announcement.

The State Department gave no details of the talks, but the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Mr. Bolton and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Georgy Mamedov yesterday discussed a $20 billion program financed by the Group of Eight industrial nations to protect Russia's nuclear, chemical and biological weapons arsenals dating back to the days of the Soviet Union.

The two officials are also preparing the inaugural September meeting of a joint U.S.-Russian security commission in Washington. The commission grew out of a summit between President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin in May that clinched a deal for sharp cuts in the two countries' nuclear stockpiles.

Mr. Abraham meets today with Alexander Rumyantsev, Russia's top nuclear-energy official, to discuss a Russian fuel and energy summit to be held in Houston in October.

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