US DOE Chief Harshly Criticises Russia-Iran Nuclear Cooperation

Publish date: August 1, 2002

Written by: Charles Digges

US Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham delivered a strong rebuke Thursday to Russia's plans to expand nuclear cooperation with Iran, asserting that Tehran is actively building nuclear weapons and pursuing access to rocket technology, presumably under the guise of Russian assistance to the country's civilian atomic energy program.

Abraham’s remarks — which came a day after a closed-door meeting among Russia’s Nuclear Minister Alexander Rumyantsev, and Undersecretary of State John Bolton, who deals with arms control issues — exposed a what could become a deep rift between the anti-terror coalition that was formed between Russia after Sept. 11.

At the press conference, Abraham focused much of his concern on Russia’s surprise announcement Friday of a 10-year plan for cooperation with Iran, which includes the building of five more nuclear reactors in that country — two at the hotly disputed Bushehr plant and three more in Ahvaz, 65 kilometres from the Iraqi border.

“Clearly the extension of Russian nuclear cooperation with Iran remains an issue of utmost concern to us,” US Department of Energy, or DOE, chief Abraham told reporters in Moscow after several days of talks with top Russian officials on energy cooperation.

“We consistently urge Russia to cease all nuclear cooperation with Iran, including its assistance to the reactor in Bushehr,” he said.

Though Abraham’s visit to Moscow had been scheduled for months, and had a different agenda, he said to an aide that Russia’s announcement of the new Iranian construction project quickly became the priority of his visit, a US Officials said.

Russian and Iranian officials have repeatedly argued that the Bushehr facility — and any more reactors that may be springing up over the next decade — is for peaceful, power generating purposes only.

But the existing $800 million deal in Bushehr has been a sticking point in Russian-American relations for years because US officials and non-proliferation groups fear the cooperation could help Iran develop nuclear weapons. Russia maintains that the aid only serves civilian purposes and that the construction is under international control.

US officials and non-proliferation experts have additionally begged the question as to why Iran, a nation so rich in its own natural resources would need a nuclear reactor — to say nothing of five — and received no satisfactory answer.

But the five new reactors were not the only worry for the United States.

“[Iran is] aggressively pursuing nuclear weapons as well as weapons of mass destruction,” said Abraham at the press conference.

Russian nuclear officials have pledged to sign a formal agreement later this year to bring the spent nuclear fuel from Bushehr back to Russia for reprocessing to avoid any proliferation risks — but one insider at the Nuclear Ministry, Minatom, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said progress on this agreement is slow.

Abraham refrained from detailed commentary at Thursday’s press conference, saying that the question “has been passed the highest possible levels, Presidents Vladimir Putin and George Bush.”

But he did signal that Washington did not want the disagreement to derail a $20 billion pledge signed by G8 leaders earlier this month to help Russia dismantle its weapons of mass destruction.

“Our main goal is to address challenges in the area of proliferation. Those problems have to be addressed regardless of the circumstances, and I expect this will be a successful program,” Abraham said.

Jeanne Lopatto, Abraham’s spokeswoman, reached by Bellona Web Thursday, played down the provocative nature of her boss’ remarks, saying: “I don’t think we made any news here — he was just reiterating a position that has been held for a long time — he didn’t raise any new questions.”

Other DOE officials reached by Bellona Web refused to comment on Abraham’s speech.

But Alexander Pikayev of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, could not recall a time when an American official had made such strong statements on Iran from a public rostrum in Russia.

“The Iranians are after the bomb, of course, but this is the first time an American politician has made such a forceful connection between that programme and Russia help — he didn’t beat around the Bush, so to speak,” he told Bellona Web.

A spokesman for the Iranian embassy in Moscow Thursday reiterated that his county’s nuclear cooperation with Russia is for peaceful purposes and was enraged by the suggestion that Russia’s cooperation was otherwise.

Aside from the five new reactors, last Friday’s Kremlin announcement of cooperation with Iran also envisions Russian help to explore Iranian oil fields, launch satellites and build passenger jets and conventional power plants.

A Russian expert on Iran, Radzhab Safarov, told Bellona Web Thursday he expected portions of the programme might be watered down before final approval — in part because of pressure from the West and pro-Western officials in Russia.

Iran, meanwhile, sounded a defiant note. A commentary in the state-controlled Tehran Times, an English-language newspaper, said Iran’s government would respond in kind to any military action against the Bushehr plant.

“Iran will definitely not sit by idly if its nuclear installations are attacked,” the paper said, defending the project as intended for civilian power needs. “It is a matter of national pride and security.” The Washington Times newspaper reported in May that Iran had placed batteries of US-made Hawk surface-to-air missiles around the Bushehr installation.

Nikolai Shingarev, head of Minatom’s board of relations with government agencies and information policy said that — aside from the Iran issue — the Rumyantsev—Abraham meeting also included a discussion of a US—Russian report on proliferation resistant reactors, which included references to Minatom’s long-dreamt-of fast neutron BREST reactor.

“What sort of reactor will be selected for this requires the signature of the two presidents,” he said. “Whether the BREST reactor is considered is up to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin.”

Another hot issue — imports to Russia of spent fuel over which the United States maintains consent rights — was not discussed, according to Shingarev.