Russia and Iran signed agreements Sunday that opened the way for Tehran to start up its first nuclear power plant next year, a step the Bush administration fears could help the Islamic Republic produce nuclear weapons.
Iran denies any intent to build nuclear bombs and argues that as a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, it has the right to develop a civilian nuclear energy program. Russia says that it accepts Tehran’s assurances and that a requirement for Iran to return all spent fuel to Russia eliminates any possibility of the new reactor being used for military purposes.
Alexander Rumyantsev, head of Russia’s Federal Atomic Energy Agency, said after the signing ceremony that Russia had complied with International Atomic Energy Agency rules in building the reactor.
“We violate no norms or rules adopted by the international community,” he told reporters at the Bushehr plant in southern Iran, which is reportedly surrounded by antiaircraft defenses.
Critics fear that after developing a nuclear energy industry, Iran could withdraw from the treaty, break its agreement with Russia and process the spent fuel from nuclear reactors to produce weapons-grade uranium or plutonium.
The Bush administration argues that Iran has no need for nuclear power because of its huge oil and gas supplies. But Tehran says it needs nuclear energy to meet booming demand for electricity and to keep its oil and gas reserves for export. It also points out that work at Bushehr began in the 1970s with German cooperation, under Reza Shah Pahlavi, when Iran was a U.S. ally. Work stopped after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and the unfinished facility was badly damaged by bombing during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.
Iranian Vice President Gholamreza Aghazadeh, who heads his country’s nuclear energy organization, told reporters that although Tehran had previously planned to construct seven civilian nuclear reactors, it now was considering building more.
Russia is receiving slightly more than $1 billion for its construction of the reactor, according to the Russian news agency Itar-Tass. The deal has played an important role in maintaining the strength of Russia’s nuclear energy industry, and officials have expressed hopes of winning future contracts with Iran.
The signing of the agreements, originally scheduled for Saturday, had been delayed by a last-minute dispute over the timing of fuel delivery, with Iran pressing for earlier delivery and Russia calling for a later date.
Neither side gave details on how the dispute was resolved. “We have signed a confidential protocol recording a schedule of fuel deliveries,” Rumyantsev said, according to Itar-Tass. He added that the plant was scheduled to come online in late 2006 and that fuel delivery would take place about six months before that. About 110 tons of fuel will be provided, he said.
Mohammed Saeedi, deputy head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization, said on Iranian radio that the plant would start work in June 2006 and become operational six months later. His comments appeared to imply that the fuel would be installed in the reactor almost immediately upon delivery.
The fuel-supply agreement swiftly drew sharp reaction from some U.S. critics.
“This latest step of the Russians vis-a-vis the Iranians calls for sterner measures to be taken between ourselves and Russia. It has got to, at some point, begin to harm our relations,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said on “Fox News Sunday.”
“The United States and our European allies should start out by saying, ‘Vladimir, you’re not welcome at the next G-8 conference,’ ” McCain said, referring to Russian President Vladimir V. Putin. The next summit of the Group of 8 major industrial nations, which includes Russia, is scheduled for Scotland in July.
Heavy equipment, turbines and a generator have already been installed at Bushehr, but television footage Sunday showed cranes still at the site. More than 2,000 Russians and 3,000 Iranians have been working at Bushehr, and 1,500 additional Russian specialists will travel to Bushehr soon to install equipment, Itar-Tass reported. Russia has trained more than 300 Iranian engineers to operate the reactor, it said.
France, Britain and Germany have been trying to negotiate with Tehran to get it to scrap uranium-enrichment plans in exchange for trade benefits and security guarantees. Critics say the European diplomatic effort cannot succeed without U.S. participation because only Washington can give the security guarantees that Iran requires.
Aghazadeh said Sunday that any diplomatic deal must allow Iran’s enrichment program to proceed.
“Our negotiations with Europe are based on understanding that Iran can continue uranium-enrichment work and ensure international trust for its atomic research,” he said, according to Itar-Tass.
Iran suspended development of its uranium-enrichment program during the talks with the Europeans but says the freeze is temporary. Enrichment for peaceful purposes is permitted under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
The IAEA, the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog group, has uncovered some evidence indicating that Iran’s nuclear effort may have a military as well as civilian purpose.
President Bush’s reluctance to become more deeply involved in the European talks with Iran and Washington’s repeated warnings to Tehran against developing nuclear weapons have fueled speculation that the U.S. may want to attack the Persian Gulf nation.
Bush declared in Brussels on Tuesday that “this notion that the United States is getting ready to attack Iran is simply ridiculous.”
He then added: “Having said that, all options are on the table.”
Rumyantsev on Sunday called for a diplomatic resolution to the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program.
“I am a man of peace, and I reject any theories of military operations,” he said. “All issues must be considered diplomatically between civilized countries, including Russia, the United States and Iran.”