Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 17

Already testy relations between Russia and the Bush administration grew a little testier last week when Moscow announced that it had begun work on a second nuclear reactor for the Iranian nuclear power station at Bushehr. Russian Atomic Energy Minister Yevgeny Adamov, who has long promoted aggressive marketing of Russian nuclear technology abroad, dismissed likely U.S. objections in making the announcement. “There is not a single piece of evidence that we are helping or might help Iran develop nuclear weapons potential,” Adamov was quoted as saying. U.S. opposition to Russian nuclear dealings with Iran, he said, is “all pure politics.”

The Clinton administration (joined by the Israeli government) had repeatedly objected to the deal under which Russia began construction of the first nuclear reactor at the Bushehr site. That contract was signed in 1995 for an estimated US$800 million. In his remarks last week Adamov said that the 1,000-megawatt reactor at Bushehr is 90 percent complete, and that it is expected to be fully operational in 2003. Although Iran has two small research reactors, the one at Bushehr will be the first in Iran capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium. The Clinton administration had also objected vigorously when reports surfaced that Iran and Russia were negotiating a possible deal for a second reactor at Bushehr. Adamov’s announcement indicates that those objections too fell on deaf ears. He did not say when the second reactor is likely to be completed or provide an estimate of the value of the deal (AP, Itar-Tass, January 16; Moscow Times, January 17).

This latest Iranian-Russian nuclear agreement follows Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeev’s groundbreaking visit to Tehran this past December, during which the two sides discussed possible Russian arms sales to Iran (see the Monitor, January 2). That visit came in the wake of a Russian announcement that it would no longer honor an informal agreement negotiated by then Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and then U.S. Vice President Al Gore–by which Moscow had agreed to limit arms sales to Iran, and to stop them altogether by the year 2000. According to some commentators, Sergeev’s visit also reflected intensifying negotiations between Tehran and Moscow which could ultimately lead to a stronger strategic partnership between the two countries. Whether ties of that sort are really in the offing should become clearer in March, when Iranian President Mohammad Khatami is scheduled to visit Moscow (UPI, January 16).

Construction of the second nuclear reactor at Bushehr adds one more point of friction to Russian-U.S. relations as the Bush administration takes office. In addition to long-standing Russian-U.S. tensions over the first Bushehr reactor project, Moscow and Washington have repeatedly clashed over what the United States and Israel charge are continued leakages of Russian missile technology to Iran.