Russia Ships First Lot of Nuclear Fuel to Iran

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, December 18, 2007

MOSCOW, Dec. 17 -- Russia announced Monday that it has delivered an initial shipment of nuclear fuel to the Bushehr nuclear power plant in Iran, a step that officials in Moscow and Washington said removes any need for Tehran to pursue a widely opposed uranium enrichment program.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that it had received written assurances from the government in Tehran that the 82 tons of fuel would be used only at the Bushehr plant, where construction has been dogged by delays amid suspicions that Iran was pursuing a nuclear weapons program. The oil-rich country insists that the plant, which will generate electricity, is part of an effort to diversify its energy sources.

In an appearance in Virginia, President Bush expressed support for the Russian delivery, saying it obviates the need for Iran to proceed with a program to enrich uranium. Bush also said he still believes that "Iran is a danger to peace," despite a recent U.S. intelligence finding that Tehran ended a covert nuclear weapons program four years ago.

Russia is building the $1 billion Bushehr facility but had halted construction this year, ostensibly because of a financing dispute. Western diplomats and analysts here said the Kremlin was in fact expressing its displeasure at Iran's failure to cooperate fully with inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the U.N. watchdog organization. They said Russian officials, including President Vladimir Putin, were also disturbed by the bellicose rhetoric of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The Russian contractor, Atomstroyexport, said last week that it had resolved the financing dispute, but it provided no details. The contractor also said it was exploring the possibility of a joint security operation with Iran at Bushehr, presumably to ensure that no fuel at the plant is diverted for other uses.

Under the agreement between the two countries, spent fuel will be returned to Russia.

Asked about Iran after a speech in Fredericksburg, Va., on Monday, Bush said Russia is "in the process of sending enriched uranium to Iran to help on their civilian nuclear reactor." He added: "If the Russians are willing to do that -- which I support -- then the Iranians do not need to learn how to enrich. If the Iranians accept that uranium for a civilian nuclear power plant, then there's no need for them to learn how to enrich."

The Russian Foreign Ministry expressed a similar view, saying that the deliveries mean Iran has "no objective need" for its own uranium enrichment program.

But the suggestion that Iran reconsider its stand on enrichment was quickly rejected by officials there.

"There is no talk of halting enrichment," a senior Iranian official told the Reuters news agency in Tehran. "Nothing is related to freezing enrichment."

Also Monday, Iranian Vice President Gholam Reza Aghazadeh said construction had begun on a nuclear reactor in Darkhovin, southwestern Iran, that the government had previously said was only in the planning stages. "We are currently constructing a 360-megawatt nuclear power plant in Darkhovin," Aghazadeh was quoted by the Associated Press as saying on state television.

Russia has reluctantly supported two rounds of mild U.N. sanctions against Iran to pressure Ahmadinejad into halting enrichment and opening up the country's nuclear program. But Moscow officials also insist that there is no evidence of a nuclear weapons program in Iran and that the country's leaders have begun to show new levels of cooperation with the IAEA.

Staff writer William Branigin in Washington contributed to this report.

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