Dismissing American concerns about Iran's nuclear ambitions, Russia Sunday cemented its commitment to Iran's atomic-energy program by signing a deal for the supply and return of Russian nuclear fuel for Iran's Bushehr reactor.
The agreement takes Iran a significant step closer to becoming a nuclear-energy power, and builds on an $800 million contract for Russia to finish the plant in Bushehr, in southwestern Iran along the coast of the Persian Gulf.
Washington frequently criticizes Iranian-Russian nuclear cooperation, a point raised again by President Bush during a summit last Thursday with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Spent nuclear fuel can be reprocessed to yield plutonium, which can be used to make nuclear bombs.
The fuel deal is expected to enhance Iran's capabilities, but nonproliferation experts and diplomats say it also adds new safeguards. Potential weapons capability, they say, would be more likely to arise from Iran's efforts to create its own self-contained fuel cycle.
"It would be impractical to enrich natural uranium to weapons grade in bomb quantities ... using the pilot facility that [the Iranians] have," says Mike Levi, a nuclear-security expert at King's College London. "The same could not be said if they are starting from reactor fuel. Of course, it would be very obvious if they moved anything [toward making a bomb].
"My inclination is that this is a deal that can be done right," says Mr. Levi. "Whether it is being done right, I don't know.... It's a manageable risk."
The fuel deal comes on the eve of a meeting in Vienna Monday of the 35- member board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which discusses Iran's case every three months. In the past two years, IAEA inspections have uncovered nuclear projects in Iran that were kept secret for 18 years.
IAEA officials say that nothing new has turned up on the Iran file for six months; Mr. Putin says he is "convinced" that Iran has rejected nuclear weapons.
"This is a very important incident in the ties between the two countries, and in the near future a number of Russian experts will be sent to Bushehr to equip the power station," said Russia's nuclear power minister Alexander Rumyantsev, who signed the deal in Bushehr after two years of negotiations.
The first shipment of 90 tons of enriched-uranium fuel has already been produced and is waiting in Siberia. Iran has said it wants to build a handful of reactors, and Russia hopes to win those lucrative contracts.
Russia will supply the fuel to run the Bushehr plant, which is scheduled to be operational by late next year, and then send back all the spent fuel to Russia. "The potential for mischief is minimal," says a Western diplomat in Vienna who is close to the IAEA. "There is always a chance that the stuff could be diverted, but then it would be known immediately, by [the IAEA] and Russia. It would be a huge red flag."
The US says that any contribution to Iran's nuclear know-how can build Iran's nuclear potential, though under the NPT, any signatory nation has the right to pursue peaceful nuclear programs.
But many Western capitals worry that the trajectory of Iran's nuclear program - though declared to be for peaceful purposes only - is aimed at building nuclear weapons.
Throughout the IAEA inspection process, Iran has been engaged diplomatically with Britain, France, and Germany in an attempt to forestall a US effort to haul Iran before the United Nations Security Council.
There, Iran would be expected to explain NPT violations that the US would like to see lead to sanctions or more severe action.
European diplomats forged a deal with Tehran late last year that led to Iran's suspension of all enrichment activities. But last Friday, Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Hassan Rohani, reaffirmed that Iran had "no such intention" of ever meeting US and European demands to permanently end enrichment plans.
"Should any Iranian government ever accept a uranium enrichment stop, it would collapse the very same day," Mr. Rohani said, according to Iran's state news agency.
In a neighborhood that counts Israel, Pakistan, and India as nuclear-armed, pursuit of nuclear weapons is a rare issue that transcends deep political divisions and unites many Iranians.
"They have no legal obligation, of course, to legally suspend, but the Western countries do want that because they see the technology as too sensitive," says the Vienna diplomat, who wished not to be named. "It's a challenge for diplomacy to find a way to convince Iran to give up something that they have a legal right to."
American pressure on Moscow and the three European nations to take a tougher line on Iran has been challenged at the IAEA and by Iran itself, which claims that it is being deprived of its right to develop nuclear expertise, while other nations - notably Iran's sworn enemy, Israel - have gotten away with undeclared programs.
"One of Iran's main gambits has been to say that the US is going to get in the way of our purchases of fuel, so we need the fuel cycle," says Levi. "So it may not be in America's best interest to complain about this deal too much - especially when there is nothing they can do about it."
Still, US Senator John McCain, (R) of Ariz., said Sunday that the US should bar Russia from this year's G-8 conference to protest Moscow's recent "aberrational" actions, including the nuclear- fuel deal with Iran.
The Russians, too, appear to have increased their concern - and therefore, their demands for safeguards in the nuclear-fuel process - about Iran's nuclear intentions.
"They don't want a nuclear-weapons state [near] their borders," says the diplomat, echoing several analysts. "If there is a problem in Iran, it's the enrichment program, not the reactor."