U.S. officials are briefing Congress about their concerns over Russia's decision to build up to six nuclear reactors in Iran over the next decade. The United States fears Iran would use the Russian technology to build nuclear weapons. This is a point expected to be underscored by top Bush administration officials who are in Moscow this week. Moscow announced its decision to build the reactors on Friday, saying a number of the facilities would be constructed at Bushehr in southern Iran, where a controversial reactor is already under construction. The others would be built in nearby Ahvaz.
The United States has long argued that nuclear cooperation between Moscow and Teheran could enable Iran, which President Bush has labeled part of 'an axis of evil,' to acquire the technology needed to build nuclear weapons.
Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary Marshall Billingslea reiterated the concern at a hearing conducted by a Senate Governmental Affairs subcommittee this week. He said, "We believe that Iran is pursuing aggressively a nuclear weapons capability, and we are concerned the Bushehr nuclear power project is in reality a pretext for the creation of an infrastructure that is designed to help Teheran acquire atomic weapons."
Mr. Billingslea emphasized that concern is heightened because of what he called Iran's support for terrorist groups. He said, "There is also a very dangerous potential that equipment and expertise meant for a state level program could fall into the hands of terrorist groups, either unintentionally or by design."
Mr. Billingslea's comments come as Undersecretary of State for Arms Control John Bolton and Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham are in Moscow, where they are expected to raise the issue with Russian officials.
Russia and Iran have both dismissed U.S. concerns about their nuclear cooperation, insisting it is a purely civilian effort to develop new energy sources.
But for Mr. Billingslea that argument does not hold up when you examine Iran's energy needs.
"The truth of the matter is that Iran is a major natural gas producing country, but they are flaring or venting six times more natural gas than any other major gas producing nation," he explained. "The energy equivalent of the gas they are flaring or venting off is three times what they are going to get out of that one reactor at Bushehr. So they could for a fraction of the Bushehr plant simply capture three times as much energy if they wanted to. So there is clearly something else going on here. What is going on is Iranian recognition that possessing the Bushehr reactor will allow them to argue to have all of the other bits and pieces of a domestic nuclear infrastructure that is ostensibly designed to support a civil power plant but in reality, we feel, is designed to support nuclear weapons ambitions."
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Vann Van Diepen told the Senate subcommittee the issue is one that U.S. officials raise regularly with Russia. He said Moscow has taken some steps to ease U.S concerns but not enough.
"They have put in place very good export control legislation, including so-called 'catch-all controls' to deal with items not on multilateral lists," said Mr. Van Diepen. "They have investigated some entities, they have taken some level of action. But the unfortunately truth is that Iranian, in particular, entities still continue to have substantial success in obtaining missile and nuclear-related technologies from Russian entities. So we are far from satisfied with the level of performance from the Russians."
President Bush has discussed the matter with Russian President Vladimir Putin several times in recent weeks. But it has emerged as one issue on which the two have been unable to resolve their differences despite the close political friendship they have developed.