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US's Delicate Dance With Iran

The US has opted for quiet diplomacy to halt Moscow's sale of nuclear power plants to Iran, not entirely out of choice

By Jonathan S. LandayStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 25, 1996



WASHINGTON

IN March 1995, the Clinton administration launched a high-profile diplomatic offensive to pressure Russia to cancel an $800 million sale to Iran of a nuclear-power reactor.

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Senior officials warned the deal could advance the Islamic republic's alleged atomic-weapons development efforts. Russia responded with angry denials and refused to abandon the sale. As congressional calls for sanctions against Moscow fueled the dispute, the White House vowed that derailing would be it a major priority.

A year later, the reactor project remains on track. But it has all but disappeared from Washington's pronouncements on differences with Moscow. The reason: a realization that by focusing attention on its failure to halt the deal, the administration could be forced to take punitive action against Russia that could seriously jeopardize overall relations, including cooperation on nuclear disarmament.

Accordingly, officials say, the administration has deliberately taken the spotlight off the issue while continuing to pursue it behind the scenes amid scant hope that it might still persuade Russia to drop the project.

"We were in danger of rhetorically painting ourselves into a corner," says one official. "There was a realization that the steps we could take that might result in stopping this deal ... might endanger other aspects of our relations with Russia that were not worth it."

Asserts another official: "We continue to oppose this reactor sale. It is an extremely ... intensive effort" being handled directly by President Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, and Secretary of State Warren Christopher. But, he acknowledges, success is "not predictable."

New world compromise

The issue underscores the difficult tradeoffs the administration must make in maintaining smooth relations with the world's No. 2 nuclear power. It also illustrates the limits of Washington's policy of isolating Iran. While the administration last year banned American firms from doing business with Tehran, it has failed to persuade other governments to cut economic ties with a regime it says nurtures terrorism, aspires to regional hegemony, and seeks weapons of mass destruction.

Under a January 1995 accord, Russia agreed to complete construction of a nuclear-power reactor at Bushehr, on Iran's Gulf coast, that the German firm, Seimens, abandoned after the 1979 overthrow of the late Shah Reza Pahlavi.

Russia signed a separate $30 million contract to provide nuclear fuel to Bushehr and take back the spent fuel.

News reports and officials say the project is moving ahead despite temporary problems Iran has had in meeting payment deadlines. They say Russian technicians completed design studies in January and have begun dismantling old structures to make way for new construction.

Ayatollah's atoms

In urging Russia to cancel the deal, the United States contended that knowledge derived by Iran from operating the plant could be used to advance its alleged clandestine effort to develop nuclear weaponry. The threat from such weaponry would extend to Russia, it argued.