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Saturday, February 14, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Defying U.S., Russia set to give Iran nuclear fuel
By Mark McDonald
Russia's nuclear-energy minister, Alexander Rumyantsev, confirmed yesterday 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," Rumyantsev said. 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 very public American arm-twisting, Moscow refused to sign 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.
Russia has questioned the legalities of such interdictions, especially in international waters or airspace. But U.S. diplomats say the initiative resembles agreements struck with Caribbean nations to halt drug trafficking.
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."
President Bush said Wednesday that Iran continues to be "unwilling to abandon a uranium-enrichment program capable of producing material for nuclear weapons."
Moscow and Tehran say the billion-dollar Bushehr reactor, which could become operational next year, will provide only electricity.
"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 proliferation of nuclear technologies, he added.
Russia and Iran haggled for months over the details of the fuel-supply agreement. At one point, 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.
"What happens if Iran doesn't comply?" one U.S. official said. "There's no such thing as a proliferation-proof reactor."
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