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US Warns Russia on Nuclear Cooperation with Iran - 2002-07-30

The Bush administration said Tuesday it finds Russia's plans to build more nuclear power reactors in Iran "disturbing." A high-level U.S. delegation is taking up the issue this week with senior officials in Moscow.

The United States has long opposed Russia's role in helping Iran complete the nuclear power station at Bushehr, which has been under construction, in fits and starts, since before Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution.

But the Bush administration is stepping-up efforts to persuade Moscow to halt nuclear cooperation with Iran following disclosure last week of a ten-year Russian plan under which five more reactors would be built in Iran in addition to the one nearing completion at the Bushehr complex, on the Persian Gulf.

At a briefing here, State Department spokesman Philip Reeker pointed out the United States believes such cooperation is helping Iran advance its nuclear weapons "ambitions," and that stopping such work would prove to be in Russia's own strategic interests.

"That Russia is considering assisting in construction of additional reactors in Iran we find disturbing," he said. "We've talked about our concerns of this for some time, and we've consistently urged Russia to cease all nuclear cooperation with Iran, including the assistance to the reactor at Bushehr. We certainly think that these actions would be in Russia's best interests, in terms of their own security concerns. Contributing to Iranian nuclear weapons ambitions would be counter-productive, I think, to Russia's broader strategic interests."

Mr. Reeker said it is an interesting question why Iran feels it needs nuclear power plants, when the country has such extensive oil and gas resources. He said the U.S. concern is that Iran's acquisition of the facilities is an effort to advance a covert nuclear weapons program.

Russia has insisted that its lucrative nuclear cooperation with Iran is strictly for civilian purposes, and that the Bushehr plant would be under international safeguards. U.S. officials counter that Iranian weapons scientists would gain valuable insights from operating the plant, even if nuclear materials were not diverted.

The spokesman said Russian nuclear help for Iran has emerged as a key agenda item for a senior U.S. delegation now in Moscow for a previously-scheduled round of non-proliferation talks. The U.S. team includes Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham and State Department arms-control chief John Bolton.

The original Bushehr reactor is due to become operational late next year or in early 2004.

A Washington Post report Monday said the prospect of a functioning nuclear plant in Iran is of major concern to both U.S. and Israeli military experts. The newspaper said some Pentagon officials argue the facility should be destroyed before it receives its first load of nuclear fuel.

Questioned about the Post report, spokesman Reeker said the notion of a pre-emptive strike is "totally hypothetical and speculative." He said the administration's focus now is on diplomatic discussions with Moscow.