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Russia Steps Up Pressure on Iran

Moscow seeks guarantees that a nuclear bomb isn't being secretly built. Top U.S. officials debate pushing Tehran harder.

May 28, 2003|Paul Richter and Greg Miller | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — The U.S. and Russia increased pressure on Iran on Tuesday, with Moscow asking Tehran to confirm that it is not secretly developing a nuclear bomb and the White House demanding that the regime do more to halt the activities of Al Qaeda terrorists within its borders.

In a strong signal of alarm about Iran's alleged bomb-building efforts, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Georgy Mamedov said that his government is concerned about "serious unresolved questions in connection with Iran's nuclear research." He spoke after meeting in the Russian capital with Iranian Ambassador Gholamreza Shafei.

Russian officials said they also pressed the Iranians to sign an agreement with the United Nations' nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, that would put the Tehran regime under closer international scrutiny.

The Russian moves appeared to reflect both genuine security concerns -- Moscow is loath to see a nuclear-armed Islamic Republic on its borders -- and realpolitik.

President Bush is scheduled to fly to St. Petersburg this weekend for talks with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin on several issues. The Russian actions were viewed in Washington as a welcome boost to U.S. efforts to curb Tehran's nuclear ambitions.

Tensions between the United States and Iran have been exacerbated by American allegations that Iran may be harboring terrorists responsible for the May 12 suicide bombings in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, that killed 34 people.

Senior U.S. officials have been debating whether to toughen Washington's policy toward Iran.

A meeting on Iran of Bush's senior national security advisors was canceled Tuesday, and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell insisted that there has been no change in policy, but other officials acknowledged that an intense discussion continues at the top levels of the administration about whether to push harder for a new leadership in Iran.

U.S. officials are hoping to persuade the U.N. atomic agency at a meeting scheduled for mid-June to declare that Iran has violated the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Russia is building a nuclear reactor complex for civil purposes in southern Iran and has long defended the Mideast nation's nuclear program. Iran continues to insist that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.

Russia's trade and economic ties to Iran give it leverage with the Islamic Republic that the U.S. has for years been pushing Moscow to use, experts say. But the Kremlin has largely resisted U.S. pressure.

Russia began to express doubts about Tehran's nuclear agenda only a few months ago, when Iranian opposition groups disclosed that Tehran was secretly building a nuclear facility intended to enrich uranium for bomb building.

Rose Gottemoeller, a Russia expert and former assistant secretary of Energy, said the Russians were "embarrassed and concerned" that the Iranians had carried on a secret program while Moscow was insisting that they were not.

Russian officials said again Tuesday that Moscow would not give up its nuclear project at Bushehr, Iran, which analysts say is worth about $1 billion to the cash-strapped Russians. But Moscow fears that unrest and disruption would follow if the United States took action to unseat the Tehran regime similar to the operation it recently mounted against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

"This is their neighborhood, and they're very concerned that Iran could be the next country to be destabilized," said Toby T. Gati, a former assistant secretary of State.

Russia also has been trying to improve its relations with the U.S., which were disrupted earlier this year by Moscow's opposition to the war on Iraq. Russia is especially eager for harmony as the presidential summit approaches, experts say.

In what looked like a response to the pressure, Tehran said Monday that it had arrested several men believed to be Al Qaeda members.

But the White House dismissed the claim.

"The steps that the Iranians claim to have taken in terms of capturing Al Qaeda are insufficient," said Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary. He said the Bush administration believes the Iranians have not arrested all Al Qaeda members in their territory and are allowing top officials to remain at large.

The White House also has expressed concern about Iranian interference in Iraq, where the majority Shiite Muslim population has close ties to Iran, a Shiite nation.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld issued a fresh warning Tuesday to Tehran.

"Iran should be on notice that efforts to try to remake Iraq in their image will be aggressively put down," Rumsfeld said. "Interference in Iraq by its neighbors or their proxies will not be permitted."

Meanwhile, an Iranian opposition group alleged Tuesday that Tehran is building at least two new facilities for producing enriched uranium for nuclear weapons.

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