Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 213

Only a day after Presidents Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush concluded what by most accounts was a jovial three-day summit in Washington and Texas last week, an event occurred in St. Petersburg that starkly highlighted the degree to which Russian-U.S. cooperation in the Bush administration’s antiterror war has failed to resolve all points of discord between the two countries. The issue in question involves Russian-Iranian defense and nuclear cooperation, and in this case Russia’s ongoing construction of a nuclear power plant in the south Iranian port city of Bushehr. On November 16, news reports out of Russia’s second city indicated that the Izhorsk plant had completed work on the 317-ton, cylindrical reactor shell for the Bushehr plant and that the component had been loaded onto a train and then placed on a ship bound for Iran. Russian television reportedly showed a crowd of workers at the Izhorsk facility cheering and applauding as the train left the factory; the order for Bushehr was said to be the company’s biggest in some ten years. Russian experts, meanwhile, are to travel with the reactor shell, which reports say will arrive in Iran in about one month’s time.

U.S. reaction to the news out of St. Petersburg was immediate but muted. On November 16, State Department spokesman Phillip Reeker repeated earlier American condemnations of Iranian-Russian nuclear cooperation, saying that Washington believes Tehran to be using the Bushehr plant “as a cover for obtaining sensitive technology to advance their nuclear weapons program.” He also described as a “threat” clandestine Iranian efforts “to acquire weapons grade material.”

The Bushehr plant has been a point of contention between Moscow and Washington since the Russians and Iranians finalized the estimated US$800 million project in 1995. Moscow has defended the deal as a purely commercial venture, arguing that it will not contribute to any Iranian effort to develop a nuclear weapon and claiming that U.S. objections are politically motivated. Despite recent hints of a possible warming in ties between the United States and Iran, Washington continues to classify Iran as a sponsor of state terrorism and has therefore clashed with Moscow not only regarding the Bushehr construction project, but also Russian-Iranian defense cooperation. During a March visit to Moscow by Iranian President Mohammad Khatami and a follow-up October visit to the Russian capital by Iranian Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani the two sides continued negotiations that, when finalized, could reportedly result in sales of Russian arms to Iran worth several hundred million dollars or more per year over the next decade. Both the U.S. and Israeli governments, meanwhile, continue to accuse Moscow of failing to stop “leaks” of Russian missile technology to Iran.

Last week’s shipment of the reactor shell had been scheduled for some time, yet the timing–coming only a day after Putin’s long-awaited summit with Bush was to have further solidified a new Russian-U.S. partnership–seemed to symbolize the apparent failure of the two men to resolve long-standing differences over Iran during their mostly informal summit talks. Indeed, amid a mush of media reports underscoring how well the two men had gotten along during the summit there was little to indicate that the Bush administration had pressed hard during the talks for a cessation of Iranian-Russian cooperation. Any reticence the administration evinced in this area was presumably due to the fact that Washington’s priorities during the summit were missile defense and nuclear arms cuts, on the one hand, and the solidifying of Russian-U.S. cooperation in the antiterror war on the other. Indeed, with respect to the war in Afghanistan, U.S. officials were probably restrained by the knowledge that both Russia and Iran are important players in the American effort to defeat the Taliban and to bring to justice Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida network. It is nevertheless noteworthy that the American side appears to have dispensed with earlier threats regarding possible sanctions against Moscow, despite the fact that this had been a standard way of attempting to rein in Iranian-Russian cooperation–particularly in the area of missile development–under both Bush and former President Bill Clinton.

Meanwhile, talks between Iran and Russia are presumably progressing on Moscow’s possible construction of a second reactor at the Bushehr facility, and will reportedly resume on a formal basis next month. Officials last week also indicated that Russian officials are considering a possible separate order for an additional twin-reactor power station in another part of Iran. It is unclear how far those talks have gone (Reuters, AP, AFP, RTR, “Vesti,” November 16).