Russia set to sign nuclear deal with Iran, irk US
MOSCOW - Russia, ignoring U.S. concerns, is set to sign a deal with Tehran this weekend that will pave the way for the start-up of Iran 's first nuclear power plant.
President Vladimir Putin last week cleared the way for the $1 billion Russian-built Bushehr reactor project to go ahead when he said he was sure that Tehran -- branded part of an "axis of evil" by Washington -- had no plans to make atomic arms.
His nuclear energy chief, Alexander Rumyantsev, was finally due to visit Iran to sign the deal Saturday, crowning years of tense politicking in which Moscow has defended the lucrative project in the face of strong pressure from Washington.
The United States says it fears the 1,000-megawatt Bushehr plant in southern Iran could be used as a cover by Tehran to build atomic weapons. Tehran has denied this.
"Moscow is really keen to get on with this project," said Vladimir Yevseyev, a non-proliferation expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Moscow.
"Abandoning the Bushehr project would immediately destroy diplomatic relations with Iran and hurt Russia's standing in the region."
Moscow's decision to press ahead with Bushehr has not been easy for Putin, given the value he attaches to his personal friendship with President Bush. The two men were meeting Thursday in the Slovak capital with Iran a top item on their agenda.
A key part of the agreement due to be signed addresses itself to U.S. concerns, obliging Tehran to repatriate all spent nuclear fuel from the Bushehr reactor back to Russia.
Moscow hopes this will alleviate U.S. fears that Iran may use the spent fuel -- which contains potentially weapons-grade materials -- to develop arms.
Oil-rich Iran denies it is developing nuclear arms and says its program is solely for generating electricity.
The Bushehr plant, where hundreds of Russian engineers and scientists work, is due to go on line later this year and reach full capacity in 2006.
Diplomats in Moscow said last year's offer by the European Union's "Big Three" to help Tehran with peaceful atomic energy may have spurred Russia into getting going with the plant to avoid losing a key market in the Middle East to EU rivals.
"Bushehr is a huge economic incentive for Russia. It will raise revenues and create jobs for Russian specialists," said one diplomat.
"But a lot of questions still remain unresolved over Iran's nuclear program. And any cooperation in that field can be problematic for as long as that is the case."
Carnegie's Yevseyev said: "By pressing ahead with Bushehr, Russia wants to prove that it's not only got a lot of natural resources for export, but that it is also one of the world's most advanced nuclear powers."
Under the deal, Russia could start fuel shipments to Iran as early as in the next two months. The fuel will be used to generate electricity.
After about a decade of use, Iran will have to repatriate the material back to a storage facility in Siberia.
A Russian Atomic Energy Agency official said Moscow will receive around $20 million from shipping the fuel to Iran and another $10 million from its repatriation -- but revenues may rise considerably over years.
"Construction of another reactor there cannot be ruled out either," he said. "There are good opportunities for us there, so we are determined to expand our relationship with Iran."