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Iran's supporters pleased, skeptical

Russia and China, which stand to benefit from the U.S. intelligence shift on the nuclear issue, remain wary.

December 06, 2007|Megan K. Stack and Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writers

MOSCOW — With a sense of vindication and a touch of suspicion, Iran's embattled defenders absorbed the news this week: U.S. intelligence services no longer believe the Islamic Republic has an active nuclear weapons program.

Russia and China have struggled to stave off new United Nations Security Council sanctions against Iran, and both were quick to turn the latest U.S. intelligence report against the Bush administration. Any attempts to impose additional sanctions should be reconsidered in light of the latest findings, the two countries suggested.

Moscow and Beijing have long argued for diplomacy and negotiation instead of sanctions. Both countries also have flouted conventional American wisdom with repeated arguments that, in fact, Iran's nuclear program didn't pose a serious threat.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei V. Lavrov told reporters Wednesday that even this latest U.S. assessment is off the mark: The U.S. assertion that Iranians were pursuing nuclear weapons until 2003 is false, he said.

"The data possessed by our American partners, or at least the data shown to us, give no reason to assume that Iran has ever pursued a military nuclear program," Lavrov said.

At the same time, Lavrov said, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin this week had again entreated Iran to freeze its uranium enrichment program, which Iran says is only for civilian energy purposes.

Western Europe, meanwhile, remains openly leery of Iran's intentions. A defiant Tehran is still ignoring two Security Council orders to halt uranium enrichment, Europeans pointed out, and new sanctions still can't be crossed off the list of possible repercussions.

"Our concerns are still there," German government spokesman Ulrich Wilhelm said Wednesday. "That's why we recommend a certain restraint of German companies in their business with Iran.

"It is still necessary to put Iran under pressure, combined with the offer of cooperation."

The new U.S. intelligence report, made public Monday, marked a fundamental retreat from the Bush administration's repeated accusations that Iran is working to develop nuclear weapons. Hounded by international pressure, the Islamic Republic dropped its weapons ambitions in 2003, the report said, but could resume the program at any time.

News of the report was gladly received in Russia, which stands to win or lose billions of dollars in business depending on whether Iran is further sanctioned.

A Russian firm won the contract to build Iran's first civilian nuclear power plant, and the government was to sell Tehran the needed fuel to operate the plant. But the project has been slowed amid international pressure and squabbles over whether Iran has paid its bills.

Russia and Iran also have a strategic alliance and shared interest in preserving stability in the Central Asian countries of the former Soviet Union.

"Russia feels it has always been right and now it has been confirmed, and it was even confirmed by the opposite side," said Alexander Umnov, senior researcher at Moscow's Institute of World Economy and International Relations. "The pressure of possible and existing sanctions prevented Russian companies from going deeper into cooperation with Iran. Now, because of the report, there is a chance to expand cooperation."

Yet despite Russia's repeated insistence that Iran's nuclear program is civilian in nature, even some officials in Moscow harbor underlying doubts, said analysts familiar with Russia's nuclear discussions.

Like their counterparts in Washington, Russian officials believe the technological groundwork in Iran could be used to quick-start a weapons program if Tehran felt the need, the analysts said.

As long ago as 1993, a Russian intelligence report suggested that Iran was conducting nuclear research that could have military applications.

"The Russian official statement on this issue has been there is no evidence that Iran is creating nuclear weapons," Anton Khlopkov, a nonproliferation expert at the PIR Center for Policy Studies in Moscow, said in a recent interview. "But I would say there is some concern, including in Russia. We don't have evidence, the U.S. doesn't have evidence, the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] doesn't have evidence. But we have concerns."

Still, there was a pervasive sense of hope in Russia and China that the report, coming from the U.S. government itself, would slow the rush to sanctions and buy extra time for negotiation.

Wang Guangya, China's U.N. ambassador, told reporters that moves to impose sanctions on Tehran should be reconsidered.

"Things have changed," he said.

Chinese analysts said they expect Beijing to maintain its low-key response until it can better assess Washington's change of heart, and that there's little immediate upside in gloating now that U.S. experts are supporting its long-standing arguments.

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