Russia dragging feet over Iran nuclear project amid pressure, fears
MOSCOW (AFP) Sep 08, 2003
Russia appears to be dragging its feet over the construction of Iran's first nuclear reactor, partly due to US pressure but also out of its own safety concerns, analysts said Monday.

As Tehran's nuclear program fell under the international spotlight Monday in a debate in Vienna, Iran insisted Monday that it has fully cooperated with the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and again denied it intended to acquire a nuclear arsenal.

But it is Russia's involvement in Iran that has troubled many nations. And Moscow's contradictory statements over the Bushehr nuclear project have left some wondering if President Vladimir Putin is in full control of the situation.

One of the main intrigues here is whether Russian officials pushing for the deal -- Russia is due to earn up to one billion dollars on the project -- will win over those who understand the diplomatic damage the Bushehr project may cause.

Few, including Putin, are giving away clues.

Russia's atomic energy minister was quoted as saying Monday that a key agreement on Iran's return of spent nuclear fuel to Russia may be signed soon.

But he gave no date for the signing, although other Russian officials had earlier said the protocol may be signed this month -- perhaps even during the IAEA talks now underway in Vienna.

Close observers of the Bushehr negotiations said Russia was becoming genuinely concerned over Iran's apparent demands to keep the spent nuclear fuel for two years before it is returned here.

Western nations worry the fuel can be reprocessed to make nuclear bombs -- although most analysts agree Tehran still lacks the technology to attack another nation with such a weapon if it was ever developed.

"Iran wants to keep the fuel for at least two years in its own storage sites," said Anton Khlopkov of the PIR Center military research institute.

"I think that Russia is delaying this not because of US pressure, but out of its own fears about the broader aspects of Iran's potential nuclear ambition."

The analyst said any bomb made out of the spent fuel would be the size of "one or two rooms" -- and therefore impossible to launch on a missile.

But he added for the time being "the United States has not made any financial offers to Russia that would give it reason to halt the project."

Other analysts pointed to confusion within the Kremlin's own ranks ahead of December's parliamentary polls and March presidential elections.

These involve debates not revolving around Iran but the very future of Russia's democracy and economic development.

"There is no single center of power in Russia and there is fighting going on over various questions including Iran," said political and military analyst Andrei Piontkovsky.

"There are people in the Kremlin that want to ally themselves with the United States and those who want to oppose it at all costs," he said.

"Putin does not belong to either of these clans -- but he is stranded between them. Russia has no firm position concerning Iran because of internal struggles."