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Russia Budges, but All Isn't Rosy : Nuclear transfer to Iran--however limited--demands the strongest safeguards

May 11, 1995

The concession that President Boris N. Yeltsin pulled from his pocket as he and President Clinton argued over Russia's planned sale of nuclear technology to Iran was not unexpected. Russia, said Yeltsin, would not sell Iran's trouble-fomenting regime the gas centrifuge it seeks, thus removing what Secretary of State Warren Christopher calls "the most dangerous aspect of that agreement." This at least gives Clinton a reasonably strong talking point when he confronts Republican congressional leaders who have threatened to cut off some or all assistance to Russia unless the nuclear deal is scrapped.

Whether Moscow ever seriously considered providing the gas centrifuge in the first place at least seems open to question. The centrifuge is used to enrich uranium; the resulting product is suitable either to fuel power reactors or to provide the punch for nuclear weapons. Russia has consistently said it doesn't want to see Iran become a nuclear power, an assurance that almost certainly can be taken at face value. An already nettlesome Iranian regime would be encouraged to become more assertive or even audacious if it had nuclear arms, making it far harder to deal with politically and vastly more menacing militarily. The risks would extend to all of Iran's neighbors. That definitely includes Russia and the heavily Muslim southern tier of the former Soviet Union's now-independent states, where Russia has strong interests and where Iran has been working hard to spread its influence.

With the removal of what Yeltsin has candidly called the military component of the deal, it seems a virtual certainty that the sale of one or two light-water reactors to Iran will proceed. First, though, the agreement is to be reviewed by a joint U.S.-Russian commission, already set up to boost cooperation in science and technology.

The United States concedes the legality of the sale; indeed, it's just what the nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty envisaged as a way to help countries--like Iran--that are signatories to the pact. Legal or not, U.S. apprehensions remain. Russia may genuinely believe that its deal with Iran will serve only peaceful purposes. But as Iraq showed earlier, covert acquisition of nuclear weapons-related materials, technology and know-how is not just possible but sometimes scandalously easy. Washington is convinced that Iran is bent on having its own nuclear arsenal. The tightest safeguards and the strongest measure of international cooperation and scrutiny will be needed to guard against that frightening possibility.

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