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Russian nuclear support for Iran limited by distrust

Russia has trained hundreds of Iranian nuclear scientists and blocked international action against Tehran. But beneath the surface, there is profound distrust. 

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Acting under US pressure, Moscow suspended several sensitive deals in the late 1990s. Israeli intelligence identified the then-head of the Russian atomic energy ministry (Minatom), Yevgeny Adamov, as the "mastermind behind the technology transfer to Iran," according to the Bulletin. He was described as an "oldstyle ideologue" resentful of his country's decline, who "needs to find work for his under-employed scientists and engineers as well as hard currency."

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A Washington Post investigation in early 2002 confirmed what it called "the existence of an underground railroad of Russian scientists traveling to Iran to work on missile and nuclear weapons programs" in the 1990s. It quoted Vadim Vorobei, a Russian who first went to Iran in 1996 and was amazed by how many fellow former Soviet missile scientists he bumped into at hotels and restaurants. 

"There was something artificial about it," recalled Mr. Vorobei, who was among the first experts to lecture in Tehran. "They were trying to show that a lot of Russians were working for them and everybody else should be scared by it."

But the Russian contribution was "limited by Iranian paranoia and secretiveness," the Post reported.

"They wanted to receive information from us, but at the same time they were not willing to tell us everything they were doing," said Vorobei. After lectures, students would pepper him with questions, and sometimes show him blueprints of a missile part, and ask if the designs were "in a good way or a bad way."

IN PICTURES: Nuclear Iran  

Iran began to be "disillusioned" with the Russians in 1998, about the time that Russian authorities – despite reports that Russian security officials took commissions from Iranian procurement agents – started to clamp down, noted the Post. The US cancelled $1 million in research contracts to Vorobei's Moscow Aviation Institute over the Iran ties.

Legacy lives on at Parchin military base 

The legacy of the 1990s still reverberates today. A former Soviet nuclear scientist from Ukraine, Vyacheslav Danilenko, has been a key source for the UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) investigation into the sprawling Parchin military base southeast of Tehran.

Mr. Danilenko claims he was unaware of any nuclear weapons applications of his work in Iran from 1996 to 2002, when he was working as a specialist in creating nanodiamonds for industrial use.  

But IAEA inspectors believe a large explosives containment vessel, built at Parchin in 2000 using Danilenko's expertise, may contain clues which the IAEA reported in November 2011 would be "strong indicators of possible [nuclear] weapon development."

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