Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 62

Russia’s decision to enlist in the Bush administration’s war against international terrorism and its more general deferral to the United States on a host of related security issues are indeed moves Washington has welcomed. But this cooperation is apparently not going to affect Moscow’s efforts to peddle its nuclear technology abroad. The construction by Russia’s Atomic Energy Ministry of a controversial nuclear power plant at the Bushehr site in southern Iran has long been the most obvious example of the defiance. But, despite reports of increased U.S. pressure aimed at halting the project, Russian officials have in recent days re-emphasized their intention to complete work at the plant. More than that, they have suggested that Russia’s nuclear establishment is examining the possibility not only of building additional reactors for the Bushehr site, but also that it may also have launched negotiations with North Korea on the possible construction of a nuclear power plant there. While each of these last projects would appear still to be at only a very preliminary stage of negotiation, that Moscow is considering them is likely to be the cause of consternation–or anger–in Washington.

In comments to the press yesterday, Russian Atomic Energy Minister Aleksandr Rumyantsev announced Moscow’s intention to continue work at the Bushehr plant and to have the facility up and running by 2005. Rumyantsev also discounted American claims that the project is aiding what Washington has charged are Iranian efforts to develop a nuclear warhead. Russian officials have long argued that, because its operations will be overseen by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Bushehr plant poses no proliferation risk. But yesterday Rumyantsev added a new claim, saying that legislation recently passed in Russia has strengthened proliferation safeguards by ensuring that spent nuclear fuel from the Bushehr plant will be shipped back to Russia for reprocessing. Rumyantsev appears to have been referring to a controversial Russian law–one that environmental groups and a number of other interest groups continue to oppose–that will permit Moscow to accept tons of nuclear waste from abroad. Moreover, in comments made earlier this month, Rumyantsev also indicated that Russia had not excluded the possibility of engaging in additional nuclear cooperation with Iran, including the possible construction of another one or two reactors at the Bushehr site. He appears not to have elaborated, but his claim is consistent with reports that have surfaced intermittently over the past year or two suggesting that Moscow and Tehran were discussing adding additional reactors at Bushehr (AP, March 27;, March 22).

Rumyantsev’s remarks come only a few days after U.S. CIA Director George Tenet delivered testimony identifying Russia as the world’s biggest proliferator of advanced technologies and training to countries seeking to develop weapons of mass destruction. In comments to U.S. lawmakers delivered on March 20, Tenet charged, among other things, that Russia has been supplying “significant assistance” to Iran on nearly all aspects of its nuclear fuel cycle (AFP, March 20).

Rumyantsev’s comments yesterday appear not only to have been a response to Tenet’s allegations, but also to have addressed press reports which have suggested over the past couple of weeks that Iranian-Russian nuclear cooperation may be experiencing some difficulties. These difficulties reportedly include failures by Iran to meet scheduled payments to Russian for the construction at Bushehr, as well as claims that some Russian technicians may be leaving the Bushehr site because of fears that it could be targeted by U.S. airstrikes. An Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman felt compelled to deny those reports on March 4. The same spokesman also denied suggestions that Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi’s recent decision to postpone a visit to Moscow (see the Monitor, February 20, March 22) was related to the dispute over Bushehr (IRNA, February 26; DPA, March 4).

Rumyantsev also said that his ministry was looking into a tentative request from North Korea that Russia consider building a nuclear plant there. “We are holding discussions and trying to find out whether it would be economically feasible,” Rumyantsev was quoted as saying. “But these discussions are without any specific foundation.”

His remarks appear to corroborate recent reports claiming that North Korea is looking to Russia for nuclear cooperation in order to circumvent new restrictions effectively put on Pyongyang’s nuclear plans by the Bush administration. At present, North Korea is to receive two light-water nuclear reactors as part of a 1994 deal that included, in return, U.S. aid and a pledge by Pyongyang to permit international inspections. But those reactors, which were scheduled for completion next year, are well behind schedule, and the Bush administration’s decision last week not to certify North Korea as in compliance with the 1994 agreement has apparently driven Pyongyang to seek a nuclear partnership with Russia (AP, March 27; New York Times, March 24; The Guardian, March 25).

Russia has long used the 1994 agreement with North Korea to justify its own nuclear cooperation with Iran. It has also sought to acquire a piece of that US$4 billion deal–under which a U.S.-backed consortium is to build the two reactors–for its own nuclear industry. It seems unlikely that the North Korean-Russian talks, insofar as they have actually taken place, will confer any real leverage on either Moscow or Pyongyang, because neither of them is in any position to finance the construction. The discussions do nonetheless highlight the fact that Moscow has high hopes of profiting both politically and financially from the recent (and still very fragile) rapprochement between North and South Korea, and that there is therefore little enthusiasm in Moscow for the Bush administration’s recent move to target North Korea as part of an international “axis of evil.” Moscow sees friendly and potentially lucrative relations with Iran threatened in much the same way.