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U.S. Campaign to Block Nuclear Reactor Sales to Iran Irks Russia

By Fred Hiatt
The Washington Post

A U.S. campaign to block Russian nuclear reactor sales to Iran has provoked anger here, with no evidence that the Kremlin is rethinking a policy that could sour U.S.-Russian relations.

A Foreign Ministry spokesman said this week "no pressure will affect Russian-Iranian relations, including in the field of atomic power generation." Russian officials have dismissed U.S. congressional threats to cut off aid as insulting, pointing out that the aid at issue is less than Moscow's potential contracts with Tehran.

Russian officials also argue that the technology they are selling to Iran cannot be used for weapons production and the deal conforms with all international treaties in terms of inspections and other safeguards. U.S. officials acknowledge as much but worry the reactor sales would give Iran a cover for military uses that inspectors would not find.

Russia and Iran signed a $1 billion contract in January under which Russia will supply one light-water reactor to Iran for energy production. Russia also will provide technical assistance.

The two countries are discussing the sale of several more reactors, including research reactors for Iranian universities, Russian officials said. Georgi Kaurov, spokesman for the Atomic Energy Ministry, said the deals could total $3 billion, while Western diplomats here said they could reach $8 billion.

U.S. officials have objected to the sales on the grounds that Iran is clandestinely trying to build atomic weapons and that it is "the chief projector of terrorists in the Middle Eastern area," as Secretary of State Warren Christopher said Monday.

Congressional leaders, including House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., have called for an aid cutoff if Russia does not cancel the deal.

The U.S. campaign won one backer within the Kremlin when ecology adviser Alexei Yablokov spoke out against the sale. But Yablokov's influence on Russian President Boris Yeltsin and other top decision makers is limited, according to knowledgeable officials.

The more common view here is that the U.S. campaign represents an effort to shut Russia out of lucrative world markets. Many Russian officials say they believe Washington seeks to corner arms and reactor sales where it can and block Russia from doing business where the United States cannot.

Viktor Mikhailov, Russian minister for atomic energy, pointed out last week that Russia is proposing to build in Iran precisely the kind of reactor the United States and its allies plan to supply to North Korea. He suggested if Russia canceled its deal with Iran, Tehran might withdraw from international treaties controlling the spread of nuclear weapons - and then Washington would move in.

A Western diplomat here agreed the two reactors are of the same type but said the situations are different. In North Korea, the West is supplying a light-water reactor to persuade Pyongyang to abandon more dangerous types and give up an allegedly advanced weapons-development program. In Iran, which has no nuclear industry, the diplomat said, such a reactor would "take them one step closer" to a nuclear weapons program.