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Tempers flare up around Russian-Iranian nuclear project
MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Pyotr Goncharov)

Another scandal is unfolding around the Bushehr nuclear power plant (NPP), which Russia is building in Iran. Atomstroyexport, Russia’s nuclear-technologies exporter, announced its decision to delay the NPP’s commissioning because of a lack of funding from Iran, which means a delay in nuclear fuel supplies to the country. Some analysts have already referred to the project as a bargaining chip that may help Moscow win concessions from the United States on NATO’s eastward expansion and the Kosovo problem, allow Russia to expand its presence on the European energy market and enter the WTO, and persuade the U.S. to abolish the Jackson-Vanik amendment. Moreover, Russia will receive guaranteed compensation for lost profits when it leaves the Iranian market.

Last Saturday, the UN Security Council unanimously voted to approve Resolution 1747 imposing tougher sanctions on Iran, and gave it 60 days to come to terms with the IAEA. Atomstroyexport has announced that the construction cycle will be delayed by at least two months if the required equipment is supplied by third countries.

This is a lucky coincidence. Now the Bushehr NPP will start receiving enriched uranium (if Iran pays on time) only after the Security Council approves a new resolution on Tehran.

This coincidence may be viewed as a handshake between Moscow and Washington. But it may also be seen as a no-less-neat deal between Moscow and Tehran.

During his visit to Tehran last December, Sergei Kiriyenko, the head of Rosatom (the Russian Nuclear Agency), warned Iran in no uncertain terms that the completion of the Bushehr project directly depended on timely funding and supplies of equipment from third countries. Tehran failed to pay in full in January and February, but resumed funding a day after the Security Council passed the said resolution. This was no accident. The resumed payments are only part of Iran’s financial commitments under the project.

Why would Iran wish to delay the project’s completion? What if Tehran’s indignation over the delay and Kiriyenko’s angry references to Iran’s chronic lack of funding are nothing more than a well-orchestrated show? Fuel will be delivered to Bushehr six months prior to the plant’s commissioning. Now that the United States has deployed a powerful carrier-based attack group to the Persian Gulf – very close to Bushehr – isn’t it better to hold off on the supplies of enriched uranium, the part of the deal that irritates Washington most of all?

There is yet another potential scenario. Tehran is indignant at Russia’s decision not to supply the uranium in March. At the same time, it has not paid in full for the preparations for the NPP’s commissioning. The question is where to load the fuel if the plant is not ready to accept it. Maybe into the 3,000 centrifuges that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad promised the world to start operating by the Iranian New Year (March 21)?

The Bushehr NPP has long ceased being a strictly business project, and Iran is largely to blame for that. The sides concluded a contract on the project’s completion in January 1995, but it was only in November 2003 that Moscow persuaded Iran to sign a bilateral agreement on the return of nuclear waste, in accordance with international practice. Even so, Iran agreed to sign it only after Moscow affirmed that it did not see any obstacles to cooperation with Iran in nuclear energy.

The issue of nuclear waste is significant. International observers have reason to doubt Iran’s intention to return the waste to Russia. Moscow will have to make a difficult choice on fuel supplies, and not without looking to the Security Council. Considering the temperamental character of the Iranian president, nobody can guarantee that he will not call the intergovernmental protocol on returning nuclear fuel a “torn piece of paper,” as he dubbed the Security Council’s two last resolutions on Iran.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti. -0-