Moscow (UPI) Oct 14, 2004
Russia and Iran announced Thursday that the Islamic Republic's controversial nuclear power plant has been completed. Iran's Beshehr nuclear plant, estimated to have cost $800 million, has angered the United States, which is concerned that spent nuclear fuel could be used to construct weapons.
Under enormous international pressure, Russia has stood by Iran in its bid to generate nuclear energy. To reassure the world, Russia has stated that it will continue to pressure Iran to honor agreements stipulated by the International Atomic Energy Agency. However, doubts remain.
Thursday Iran became very close to becoming a nuclear power - for domestic electricity generation. The announcement made Thursday, immediately after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited Iran, signals that Russia will continue to stand by Iran and push Tehran to comply with international agreements on nuclear energy.
To ally fears of possible nuclear weapons production, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said Thursday that the Kremlin would vouch for Tehran's nuclear ambitions not going beyond civil use.
Attending an informal gathering between NATO and Russian defense ministers in the Romanian town of Poiana Brasov, Ivanov stated, according to the Interfax news agency: Russia is helping Iran to build a nuclear power plant in Beshehr. I can assure you that the International Atomic Energy has strict control over the project, which rules out the possible use of Russian technologies and materials for military purposes.
However, not everyone is convinced.
The Beshehr plant is now complete, but handling of spent nuclear rods remains an outstanding issue. A Russian-Iranian agreement on returning spent nuclear rods to Russia was scheduled last year.
Russia's Atomic Energy Agency now claims that such an agreement could be signed as early as November since only a few commercial issues need to be ironed out. The fact the plant was completed before an agreement was reached on spent fuel rods is representative of the unease many have toward a nuclear Iran in any form.
Signing such an agreement in November is problematic at best and quite possibly beyond the control of Iran and Russia. The IAEA is scheduled to meet on Nov. 25 to determine if Iran should face a U.N. Security Council vote that, in theory, could carry possible sanctions if Iran were to be found violating international nuclear energy conventions.
However, in reality, as Russia has veto power over any U.N. Security Council vote, Tehran expects to avoid international censure - but not international outcries and criticism if the IAEA finds Iran not in compliance.
An oft-asked question is why Iran wants or needs nuclear energy for civil power generation use. Iran is, after all, one of the world's largest petroleum producers and easily able to meet domestic energy concerns. Equally puzzling for some is Russia's interest in the Beshehr project.
Russian contractors surely benefit from the plant's construction, but the Kremlin takes the heat for helping a country whose attitude to the outside world is problematic at best. Even the slightest possibly that Iran could one day produce a nuclear weapon would send the greater Middle East, already rocked by violence and instability, into a deadly arms race which would most likely threaten Russia as well.
Russia's interest in standing by Iran does have some logic though. Iran remains Russia's strongest ally in the region. In return, Tehran is willing to cooperate, to a degree, in keeping Russia's southern flank stable.
With Islamic fundamentalism a clear and present danger to Russia's domestic and international security, helpful intelligence and other forms of assistance from Iran is sorely appreciated and vitally needed. With Iran close to Russia, the Kremlin also has a window in China's regional ambitions.
Russia has decided to vouch for Iran's non-threatening nuclear ambitions. It does so at great risk. Iran last month threatened to disregard an IAEA demand to stop work on enriching uranium - the key element to creating a weapon. Only after very strong pressure from the Kremlin did Iran relent. The repeated need to do so worries the U.S. and Iran neighbors.
Another worrying issue was the announcement made by Russia's Atomic Agency after the construction at Beshehr was called complete. The only remaining work includes assembly of some security and control equipment. Will Russia vouch for this as well?
(Peter Lavelle is an independent Moscow-based analyst and the author of Untimely Thoughts, an electronic newsletter on Russia.)
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