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Iran Nuclear Threat Worries Russians

A U.S. official says Moscow has begun to share Washington's fears that a clandestine weapons program is being developed.

February 27, 2003|David Holley | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — Russia has begun to share some of Washington's fears about Iran's ballistic missile and nuclear programs, a senior Bush administration official said Wednesday.

"They are now more persuaded than they were before that Iran does have a clandestine nuclear weapons program," the U.S. official said, speaking on condition that he not be further identified. "I think for some time the Russians felt that Iranians can't develop a nuclear weapons program. I think now they're beginning to see that in fact they are."

In another sign of Moscow's shifting attitudes, Russian Space Agency chief Yuri Koptev admitted this week in talks with a visiting U.S. delegation that individual Russian scientists or engineers may be helping Iran build missiles, the U.S. official said.

"Obviously, the expansion of their capabilities in ballistic missiles -- their ability to have longer-range missiles -- worries us, and we think should worry the Russians as well," he said.

Washington is particularly concerned about Russia's help to Iran in the construction of a 1,000-megawatt light-water reactor in Bushehr, a project begun decades ago and revived in the mid-1990s. Undersecretary of State John Bolton, who met here with Russian space and atomic energy officials this week, said at a Tuesday news conference that he had stressed "the importance of not having Russian assistance ... to any Iranian programs involving weapons of mass destruction or ballistic missiles."

The United States believes that the Bushehr project, valued at $800 million, is a cover for obtaining sensitive technologies to develop nuclear weapons. But Russia has insisted that the project is entirely peaceful, and it has cited an Iranian commitment to return spent fuel to Russia, which would help limit the risk of nuclear proliferation.

That commitment by Iran, however, is now in doubt.

Iranian President Mohammad Khatami announced this month that Iran has begun mining uranium for use in nuclear power plants and will reprocess spent fuel itself rather than sending it all to Russia. Possessing this sort of complete "fuel cycle" would go far toward making it possible for Iran to produce weapons-grade plutonium. But Khatami insisted that the program was peaceful.

The U.S. official speaking Wednesday ridiculed that idea. "Here's a country that floats on oil," he said. "What do they need a nuclear fuel cycle for? Not their abstract interest in nuclear physics.... They are now well along in a very sophisticated program for the development of nuclear weapons capability."

Alexander Konovalov, president of the Institute for Strategic Assessment, a Moscow think tank, said Russia should be far more careful with exporting technology that can be used both for civilian and military purposes. Making such sales is "like dancing in a minefield," he said. "If you are lucky, you won't step on a land mine. But what if you are not?"

Moscow is aware of the risk, but its attitude on nuclear exports to Iran is still ambivalent, Konovalov said. "On the one hand, it is absolutely not in Russia's interest if Iran becomes a nuclear power," he said. "And there is a clear understanding of this in Moscow -- it does not at all want a new nuclear power in its southern underbelly."

Yet at the same time, "Russia does not want to lose the Iranian market, nor does it want Iran to view Russia as a non-friendly neighbor," he said. "It is understandable that Russia may want to sell certain things to Iran, and it is also clear that if Russia does not sell these things, then other countries will take Russia's place in this market."

Ivan Safranchuk, director of the Moscow branch of the Washington-based Center for Defense Information, said fear of nuclear weapons getting into the hands of terrorists has "whittled down the differences between Russia and the U.S." on proliferation issues.

"In general, the development of weapons of mass destruction by such countries as Iran, Iraq or North Korea runs counter to Russia's national interests," Safranchuk said. "Russia has the same interest and the same concerns as all other official and unofficial nuclear states. No one in the world wants to have more competitors and potential adversaries than there already are. No one wants nukes to sprawl all over the globe."

Russia's concerns in this regard until recently were primarily political, because it did not consider countries such as Iran or North Korea as posing any security threat to itself, Safranchuk said. But now, with Russia facing issues such as a separatist rebellion in Chechnya and related threats of terrorism, the thinking has changed, he said.

*

Alexei V. Kuznetsov in The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.

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