To dissuade Moscow from blocking U.N. action against Iran, Russia would be permitted to work on a nuclear reactor in Iran even if the U.N. Security Council imposes sanctions on Tehran for its nuclear program, U.S. and European officials said.
The exclusion for the Bushehr project, a light-water reactor being developed with Russian help in southwestern Iran, is in a sanctions resolution drafted by Britain, France and Germany. The three countries have led efforts to halt nuclear activities that the major powers say are aimed at bomb-making but Tehran insists are for energy production.
In New York, French U.N. Ambassador Jean-Marc de la Sabliere told Reuters the three European powers planned to put forward a draft U.N. Security Council resolution “during the course of this week. We are aiming for Wednesday or Thursday.”
Russia, which is being paid $800 million by Iran for its work on the Bushehr reactor, holds a veto in the Security Council, so its support for the measure will be crucial.
The resolution would impose limited sanctions, including bans on nuclear and missile cooperation, after Iran ignored a Security Council demand to halt uranium enrichment by Aug 30.
In interviews, U.S. and European officials said Russia, which like China has been hesitant about sanctions, would not vote for a Security Council resolution without an exemption for the Bushehr project, which is due to begin operation next year.
“It ensures that you get the Russians to go along,” a U.S. official said.
A European diplomat explained: “We think there shouldn’t be any cooperation on the nuclear side and none on the missile side or even a defense relationship (with Iran but) the Russians think it’s OK for there to be nuclear cooperation as long as it’s for civilian purposes.”
Russia is believed to have some 1,500 technicians working at Bushehr and they are expected to remain, officials said.
For more than a decade, the United States has opposed Russian nuclear cooperation with Iran and strongly objected when Russia in 1995 took over the contract for Bushehr, a 1,000-megawatt project begun by German firm Siemens in the 1970s.
Washington’s opposition cooled after Russia, following revelations in 2002 that Iran was pursuing a covert uranium enrichment program, slowed Bushehr’s completion and negotiated a deal under which Russia would provide fresh fuel for Bushehr, then take back spent fuel so it could not be diverted for weapons.
Some U.S. officials said Russia’s willingness to take back spent fuel made the project less of a proliferation risk, but others hoped that if the Security Council imposed sanctions on Iran, that would give Russia political cover to halt the project entirely.
Unable to meet Russia's demands
The Bush administration is negotiating with Moscow on a U.S.-Russia nuclear cooperation agreement that some experts predicted would open the door to so much new and lucrative nuclear trade that Russia could afford to jettison the Bushehr contract. But said one U.S. official: “Russia wants both.”
Russia and Iran last month signed an agreement fixing a 2007 start-up date for Bushehr, with Moscow resisting pressure from Tehran to speed up work on the long-delayed plant.
Rose Gottemoeller, director of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Moscow Center who worked closely with Russia as a senior Clinton administration official, said she was comfortable with the Bushehr exemption.
“My basic conclusion is (Russian officials) have gotten religion on this issue and have tailored the Bushehr fuel services contract to properly avoid proliferation while preserving the reactor deal,” she said in an e-mail.
Mark Medish, another Carnegie Russian expert, said the exemption reflects practical politics and there could be diplomatic value in allowing a Russia-Iran channel to continue operating. Also, letting Bushehr proceed gives the Security Council flexibility to further tighten sanctions in the future, he said.
But Henry Sokolski of the Non-proliferation Education Center said a Bushehr exemption would be a disappointment after the tough U.N. sanctions imposed on North Korea.
Given concerns about Iran covertly making nuclear fuel, “you shouldn’t trust them with a light-water reactor,” said Sokolski, who says such technology is more dangerous than many people think.