TEHRAN, Iran – After years of delay, Russia announced Monday that it had delivered its first shipment of nuclear fuel to a reactor in southern Iran, a move Washington had long sought to delay to pressure Tehran not to pursue its own enrichment program.
Delivery of the nuclear fuel rods will ensure that the $1 billion power plant being built by Russia’s state-owned Atomstroyexport Corp. in the southern port city of Bushehr will be up and running by next year, Gholam-Reza Aghazadeh, chief of Iran’s Atomic Energy Agency, told state television.
He cast Russia’s decision as evidence that Iran had convinced other countries it was pursuing nuclear power for peaceful purposes.
The United States and its allies suspect Iran of trying to produce fuel for a nuclear weapon, and the U.N. Security Council has twice imposed sanctions on the country because of its enrichment program. A new U.S. intelligence report released two weeks ago said Iran had frozen its weapons program in 2003.
But President Bush says Iran remains a threat because it continues to enrich uranium. At lower levels of enrichment, the fuel can be used to generate electricity; at higher levels, it can be used for a bomb. The Bush administration had pressed Russia to withhold assistance to the Bushehr project, hoping that would signal international concern about Tehran’s efforts.
U.S. officials said Monday that Russia’s decision showed that Iran did not need to pursue its own program.
At an appearance in northern Virginia, President Bush said, “If the Russians are willing to do that – which I support – then the Iranians do not need to learn how to enrich.”
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said after a meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris that Iran should rely on nuclear fuel supplies from another country rather than produce its own.
Analysts said U.S. officials appeared to be putting the best spin on a decision they had opposed. Robert Einhorn, a former top weapons proliferation official in the Clinton and Bush administrations, said Bush’s comments were an attempt to “make lemonade out of this lemon.”
Aghazadeh, chief of Iran’s Atomic Energy Agency, said on state television that Iran would continue its enrichment activities at a facility in the central city of Natanz to provide fuel for another 360-megawatt reactor it plans to build in the southwestern town of Darkhoein (or Darkhovin) near the Iraqi border. Iran insists it wants nuclear technology to generate electricity in the event its oil reserves expire.
The U.S. and Israel suspect that the uranium enrichment facility in Natanz, a heavy water reactor in Arak, and other nuclear facilities are building blocks for an eventual weapons program.
No one suspects Iran of harboring a secret bomb factory at Bushehr. But some scientists say spent fuel from a light-water reactor could be used to create fissile material for a bomb.
Moscow’s Foreign Ministry insists it won’t allow the fuel to be diverted. “All fuel that will be delivered will be under control and guarantees of the International Atomic Energy Agency for the whole time it stays on Iranian territory,” it said Monday.
“All our processed fuel is to be returned, gram by gram,” said Sergei Karganov, chairman of the Council on Defense and Foreign Policy in Moscow. “It was actually kind of a political lever more than an actual concern that our fuel could be used for weapons,” he said. “It can’t be used for weapons under any circumstances. This is a fact of life.”
Delivery of 80 tons of uranium fuel to Bushehr could take two months, said Irina Yesipova, of Atomstroyexport.
Russia has always insisted it delayed supplying the fuel rods for the Bushehr plant because of financial disputes with Iranian counterparts. But many analysts have said Russia was concerned about the direction of Iran’s nuclear program, which could pose a far greater threat to Eastern Europe than North America.
The U.S., along with France and the United Kingdom, had been steadily pushing for a third round of sanctions when the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate released this month concluded Iran had halted its weapons program.
China and Russia, which wield veto power on the council, have balked at new sanctions. But with the release of the NIE reducing the threat of a U.S. attack on Iran, the two countries are closing a number of financial deals with Iran that they had put on hold.
Beijing signed a $2 billion energy deal with Tehran. Russia will sell Iran 130 Tupolev passenger planes over the next 10 years to upgrade an aging fleet of Boeing and Airbus jets, according to Russia’s Interfax news agency.
Russia’s Industry and Energy Ministry said in a statement Monday that Lukoil Overseas will be resuming operations at an Iranian oil field that had been halted because of U.S. sanctions.
Russia’s EuroChem Mineral Chemical Co. was holding talks about building a factory with Iran’s National Petrochemical Co. in Moscow on Monday, according to Interfax.
Russian Defense Minister Mikhail Dmitriev and a high-ranking military delegation are scheduled to arrive in Tehran Wednesday to meet with Iranian counterparts.
And though the Bush administration has urged Russian President Vladimir V. Putin to curtail its multibillion-dollar nuclear trade with Tehran, Russia delivered the fuel to the Bushehr plant, which is being built by Russian scientists and engineers who live with their families in the Persian Gulf port city.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in a televised interview Sunday, said Iran had reaped a harvest from the U.S. intelligence estimate, which undercut the possibility of U.S. airstrikes to halt or slow Iran’s nuclear program.
“The nuclear issue, after a period of escalation reached a climax but now is in its anti-climax and de-escalation state,” said Ahmadinejad, who departed for Saudi Arabia on Monday as the first Iranian president to receive a prestigious invitation to attend the pilgrimage to Mecca.