Nuclear curve ball? Russia inks deal with Iran for new reactors

The agreement, which could see Russia build eight new civilian reactors in Iran, comes just weeks before a deadline for Iran to accept curbs on its capacity to make nuclear weapons.

Maxim Shemetov/Reuters
Sergei Kiriyenko (r.), head of the Russian state nuclear monopoly Rosatom, and head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organisation Ali Akbar Salehi shake hands during a signing ceremony in Moscow. Russia will build up to eight new nuclear power plant units in Iran under an agreement signed in Moscow on Tuesday.

Less than two weeks before an international deadline for Iran to agree to curb its nuclear weapons capabilities, Russia has agreed to sell up to eight civilian atomic reactors to Iran.

Russia, part of the P5+1 (the five permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany) group that will sit down with Iran next week in Vienna, insists that there is no contradiction between that goal and the new contract with Iran.

But Russian officials also declare that they've stopped taking any advice from the West, particularly the US, against trading with Iran in areas other than UN Security Council-banned nuclear weapons and ballistic missile technologies.

In the past, the Kremlin agreed to drag its feet on completing the Bushehr nuclear plant in southern Iran and broke a contract to provide Tehran with advanced S-300 air defense systems, allegedly under pressure from the West to present a united front to Iran during the nuclear negotiations.

"This decision to sell more reactors to Iran reflects the fact that now, as we see it, Washington has no right to an opinion about what we should do in these matters," says Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-connected political expert. "The US has been playing by its own rules toward Russia, introducing sanctions against us, undermining our interests in Ukraine, and much more. It's lost its right to be listened to by us."

Mr. Markov says that preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons is a shared concern with the US. But he adds that Washington is not merely interested in curbing nuclear proliferation, but also appears to be trying to contain Iran as a regional power, an objective that Moscow is no longer going to go along with.

Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov dismissed US objections over another Russian deal, to buy Iranian oil in defiance of US sanctions, in similar terms on Tuesday. "Our American partners have enacted their own legislation, which differs from the decisions taken by the UN," hence Russia feels free to ignore them, he told the official Sputnik agency.

The new nuclear deal will see Russia's state-owned Rosatom firm build two more reactors at Bushehr, and possibly six more at other sites in coming years. In a statement, Rosatom insisted that the deal was completely legal. It added that Russia has arranged to reduce any danger of nuclear proliferation by providing the Iranians with Russian-made fuel, and then returning the spent fuel rods to Russia for reprocessing.

"The entire construction project of the nuclear power units in Iran, including equipment and nuclear fuel supplies, will be under the International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards and fully meet the nuclear nonproliferation regime," Rosatom said.

But Western experts quoted by the Financial Times warned that the devil is in the details, and that Russia's move to sell more nuclear technology to Iran on the eve of crucial make-or-break talks threatens to undermine the whole international effort.

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