Russia to Deliver Nuclear Fuel to Iran

By BRIAN KNOWLTON

New York Times

February 28, 2005

International Herald Tribune

WASHINGTON, Feb. 27 - Russia agreed today to provide fuel for an Iranian nuclear reactor and sought to assure a wary world that tough safeguards would prevent any diversion of the fuel to build weapons.

But the accord, vigorously opposed by the United States, carried a potential to undercut European-led efforts to curb the Iranian nuclear program, and it brought calls from some in Washington for a tougher stance on Russia.

It came only three days after President Bush, who has sharply denounced the Iranian program, expressed his trust in President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and joined with him in saying that Iran should not have nuclear weapons.

The White House had no immediate comment on the agreement, but lawmakers responded sharply.

The agreement "calls for sterner measures taken between ourselves and Russia," said Senator John McCain of Arizona, a Republican leader in security matters. "It has got to, at some point, begin to harm our relations." He called the accord "almost aberrational."

Representative Jane Harman of California, the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee, agreed. "This is the time to be tough with Russia," she said on CNN. "Iran going nuclear is a danger for the entire world, including Russia."

Senator McCain said that the Group of Eight industrial countries should exclude Mr. Putin from its next summit meeting, in Edinburgh in July.

He told Fox News that the United States should support European diplomatic efforts to persuade Iran, through incentives, to permanently halt any weapons-related activities. But Europe, he added, should then support a call by the United States for United Nations sanctions if Iran fails to comply. "We'd send much more powerful messages if we agreed with our European allies," Mr. McCain said.

The proponents of a tough line on Iran also pointed to a report today of a secret 1987 meeting in Dubai that reportedly led to an offer by associates of Abdul Qadeer Khan, who once led the Pakistani nuclear program, to supply Tehran with nuclear weapons components. The Washington Post, citing foreign diplomats and United States officials, said that the meeting had helped Iran launch its nuclear efforts.

But it said that Tehran had recently told the International Atomic Energy Agency that it had turned down the chance to buy some sensitive bomb-making equipment from the Khan group. Iran might, however, have used the highly detailed Pakistani proposal as a guide for purchasing equipment elsewhere, the officials said.

The Pakistani network sold nuclear equipment to Iran, Libya and North Korea before the Islamabad government closed it down in 2003, according to American officials. Mr. Khan and some colleagues are under house arrest in Pakistan.

Iran insists that its nuclear work is devoted solely to energy production, but United States officials have said they fear it is a cover for weapons development. An Iranian bomb, they say, would be deeply destabilizing to the region and could pose a terrorist threat.

American media reports that the administration might be contemplating military action on Iranian nuclear facilities have rattled Europeans. Asked about the possibility last week during his European tour, Mr. Bush dismissed such an attack as "ridiculous" but then added incongruously to the ears of some Europeans that he could not rule anything out.

But the Russian-Iranian agreement today included an important clause meant to assure worried outsiders: that Tehran would return spent fuel to Moscow. Iran initially had rejected the demand, but needed a fuel source for the $800 million Bushehr nuclear plant, built with Russian assistance.

Spent fuel can be reprocessed to make plutonium for military uses. The Russian Federal Atomic Energy Agency has insisted that the plutonium that could thus be obtained is scant and "practically useless for making a nuclear weapon."

Outside specialists disagree, saying spent fuel could be used to build several rudimentary atomic bombs a year. The first Russian fuel shipments to Iran could begin within two months, Russian officials said.

Iran's uranium enrichment facilities have been closed since November by agreement with the Europeans subject to their talks continuing - and are being monitored by the I.A.E.A. The agency has found no evidence of weapons work, though some of the nuclear research can be used for civilian or military purposes.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former United States national security adviser, defended the Russia-Iran agreement today, though he said it underscored the urgency of closer United States cooperation with Britain, France and Germany on Iran.

"The Russians are actually acting in consonance with international law," he said on the CBS News program "Face the Nation." "The Iranians do have a right to have a nuclear program."

"The key question will be whether the spent fuel is returned to Russia, and that can be monitored," he said. "So I don't really fault the Russians for doing this."

But Senator McCain was not nearly as sanguine.

Mr. McCain, who has often criticized Mr. Putin for moves considered anti-democratic, said the Russian president was acting "like a spoiled child."

"The United States and our European allies, I think, should start out by saying, 'Vladimir, you're not welcome at the next G-8 conference,' " Mr. McCain said.

David Manning, the British ambassador to Washington, disagreed with Mr. McCain. "Certainly we think Russia should participate" in the Group of 8 meeting, he said on CNN, noting that Russia is set to host the group's 2006 meeting.

He said Britain had no problem with the Russia-Iran agreement, because it will be "under full-scope safeguards."

Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a ranking Republican member of the Armed Services Committee, supported the call for a tougher approach to Russia, saying that an exclusion from the G-8 meeting should at least be considered.

It was time, he said, "for the Russian government to pay a price for empowering the bad guys."