Russia delays completion of Iranian reactor, encouraging Washington

Publish date: February 22, 2007

Written by: Charles Digges

Officials in Moscow acknowledged this week that late payments from Tehran and problems securing necessary equipment would likely hinder the completion of the Russian-built Bushehr nuclear reactor in Iran, which is slated to go online later this year.

The controversial $800m, 1,000 megawatt Russian-built plant has been beset by delays and diplomatic throw-downs with the United States ever since Moscow took over the project in the 1990s more that a decade after it was abandoned by Germany during the Islamic revolution.

The reported delays delighted Washington’s corridors of power, which saw the Russia’s hard-line financial policy with Iran on the reactor project as representing that Moscow was now beginning to fear a nuclear Iran.

The delayed equipment includes a 100 tonne-plus shipment of reactor-grade uranium fuel from Russia to Iran – fuel that the West has long feared, amid Iran’s uranium enrichment ambitions, could be enhanced to weapons grade.

Washington has repeatedly called on the Russians to cease assisting what it believes is a covert Iranian atomic weapons programme, but Moscow shares historically close ties with Iran and has defended its nuclear programme as peaceful.

But the credibility of these claims have been strained as Iran has been sanctioned time and again – most recently on Wednesday – by the United Nations Security Council for refusing to stop enriching uranium.

Diplomats have told reporters that they expect these new sanctions to be as ineffective as those imposed last December, Agence France Press reported.

Other equipment delays
In addition to Iran’s apparent withdrawal pains at the bank for the project, several other pieces of equipment necessary to complete the reactor have been held up by contractors from other countries, Irina Yesipovna, spokeswoman for Russia’s Atomstroiproekt, the lead contractor on the project, said in a telephone interview Wednesday.

"Financing of the project by the Iranian side has practically been frozen since mid-January," Yesipovna said, adding that the time table for the opening of Iran’s first nuclear power station would be revised.

Russian news agencies also quoted an unnamed state official as saying that payments had been held up for more than a month due to an Iranian ban on making payments in US dollars – a condition imposed on it by sanctions drawn up by the UN Security Council in December.

Delay result of fears of Iran’s intentions?

But some analysts and United States officials have suggested the financial angle on the delay is just a smokescreen for Moscow’s deeper concerns about Iran’s nuclear intentions, and would like Iran to start making some concessions in international talks about its nuclear programme.

"All the fuss now is over sending fuel – over 100 tonnes of uranium enriched to reactor grade. It’s packed and ready for shipment but the Russians don’t want to because this is a thing you can’t retract. The Iranians are applying pressure by not paying," independent Russian defense analyst Pavel Felgehauer told AFP.

"We’re not very much like (Iran). To some extent we’re afraid of them … We want good relations with Iran knowing they could be big trouble. We like their money but don’t want a nuclear Iran. It’s a very delicate balance,"

US sees thaw with Moscow over Iran
The United States welcomed reports of the delays, saying they likely represent apprehension from the Russian side about Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

"I think what that shows is Russia’s own concerns about Iran’s nuclear program and Russia’s own concerns about what Iran actually is intending to do," State Department spokesman Tom Casey told reporters.

"I do think it’s very clear to us that the Russians share our concerns about Iran’s nuclear program," Casey said.

"Certainly we don’t think at this point that it’s appropriate to do anything that could potentially help further Iran’s nuclear programme."

Yet, Mohammad ElBaradei, chief of the UN’s nuclear watch-dog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, said Wednesday that diplomats were vatly over-estimating Iran’s nuclear capabilities and said it would take them five to 10 years to have a working nuclear bomb, AFP reported.