Russia grows wary of Iran nukes
A 'worst-case scenario' says Iran could be capable of building nuclear weapons by 2006.
Even as a leaked report on Iran's nuclear program cites a string of safeguard "failures," Iran is enhancing its cooperation with UN inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and trying to mollify deepening concerns in Russia and the US that it harbors secret nuclear-weapons ambitions.Skip to next paragraph
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An IAEA team arrived in Iran Saturday to take samples to test Iran's stated policy of transparency. Revelations in the past year about swift Iranian progress in uranium enrichment and previously unknown advanced facilities are raising new questions among nuclear experts.
Russia is Iran's top nuclear business partner and the builder of a controversial $1 billion reactor at Bushehr. But after years of defending Iran's nuclear program as peaceful, Russia appears to be undergoing an change in official thinking.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair set off a firestorm when he announced last week that Moscow had imposed new conditions on Iran. Russia would not send nuclear fuel to Iran unless the Islamic republic signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) additional protocol, a measure that would enable stringent IAEA inspections of undeclared sites.
Senior Russian and Iranian officials have since denied that any new condition exists.
They said instead that the two nations have only to hammer out details of an accord that requires Iran to return all spent fuel to Russia.
But Russia has been embarrassed and surprised by the scale of an undeclared gas centrifuge-enrichment plant at Natanz, 200 miles south of Tehran.
A uranium-conversion facility is also coming on line at Isfahan, and Iran declared to the IAEA last month that it plans to build a heavy-water research reactor.
And in February, President Mohamed Khatami announced that Iran was developing its own uranium deposits at mines near Yazd, in the central part of the country.
"Russian officials have made a huge evolution in understanding the threat from Iran" and are making "progress toward the US position," says Anton Khlopkov, an Iran expert at the PIR Center in Moscow, a military-research institute that predicts a "worst-case scenario" of Iran building a nuclear weapon by 2006, in a report soon to be released.
"Not only US but Russian experts were really surprised by the information about these two sites and these two plants," Mr. Khlopkov says of the enrichment facilities. "Russia and the US should engage with European experts to find the source of such technologies ... maybe in North Korea or Pakistan."
The US has labeled Iran part of an "axis of evil," and is pushing for the 35-member board of the IAEA to declare Iran in violation of the NPT when it meets in Vienna on June 16.
Addressing the issue Sunday during a special session of Iran's parliament, Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi declared that it was strictly forbidden for Muslims to use any weapon of mass destruction.
"We have no nuclear weapons program and we have said this frankly and clearly so many times," Mr. Kharrazi said. "We have a security doctrine that is without nuclear weapons."