Publication: Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 46

Iran’s Bushehr nuclear power plant was back in the news over the weekend following a March 4 announcement by Russian officials that they had reached a preliminary agreement to build a third and fourth reactor at the controversial facility. If finalized, the agreement would represent the second expansion of the $800 million project in less than a month. On February 18 then Russian Atomic Energy Minister Viktor Mikhailov announced that Russia would assume responsibility for construction of the plant in its entirety. (See Monitor, February 25) Under the original agreement, signed in 1995, Iran was to have built the reactor room and some auxiliary structures. The March 4 announcement came during a meeting — the second of its kind — of an Iranian-Russian intergovernmental commission on economic cooperation. The committee is co-chaired on the Russian side by Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir Bulgak. (Itar-Tass, March 5; Reuter, Itar-Tass, March 6)

The United States and Israel have long protested against Russia’s participation in the Bushehr project, arguing that the plant could further what are believed to be secret Iranian efforts to develop nuclear weapons. The March 4 announcement seemed designed to underscore Moscow’s defiance of those protests. It came a day after Israeli Industry and Trade Minister Natan Sharansky wound up two days of talks in Moscow aimed at boosting bilateral ties. Israel’s opposition to Russian cooperation with Iran–on this and other projects — figured prominently on Sharansky’s agenda. (See Monitor, March 5) Israeli media reported yesterday that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had reacted angrily to news of the new Bushehr agreement. (AP, March 8)

The March 4 announcement also came on the eve of Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin’s departure for the United States and the convening tomorrow of the tenth semiannual "Gore-Chernomyrdin" commission. The announcement seemed likely to dampen any small hope in Washington that the recent dismissal of Atomic Energy Minister Viktor Mikhailov — a hawk known for his aggressive pursuit of the Iranian and other nuclear deals (see Monitor, March 3) — might be a signal of Russia’s willingness to back off from the Bushehr project. A statement by Russian officials in Tehran that the latest Bushehr plant deal was part of a broader boost in Russia’s economic dealings with Iran is also unlikely to be greeted with much enthusiasm in the United States.

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