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US Officials, Analysts Concerned by Russian Involvement in Iranian Nuclear Program - 2003-03-01

U.S. officials and military analysts say Iran may be accelerating its efforts to establish a nuclear weapons program and are concerned about Russia's involvement. Analysts say Russia's transfer of nuclear technology to Iran could jeopardize the relationship between Moscow and Washington.

On a recent visit to Iran, international inspectors were shown sophisticated machinery to enrich uranium, sparking allegations that Tehran is making progress in its efforts to develop nuclear weapons.

Iran recently announced that it has begun mining uranium and plans to build plants to process the ore into fuel.

Leonard Spector worked as a nuclear weapons expert for the U.S. Energy Department and is now with the Center for Non-Proliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute. Mr. Spector says recent disclosures about Iran's nuclear program should cause a great deal of concern. "The recent revelations of a uranium enrichment plant that is under construction and seems to have made a good deal of progress in Iran and of a heavy water facility there are very disturbing, even if they are placed under international inspection because they still will provide a very potent capability to Iran in the not too distant future to acquire weapons grade material and, of course, potentially to build nuclear weapons," he says.

Mr. Spector says American governments have been worried for years about Russia's assistance in building a large, civilian, nuclear power reactor in the southern Iranian port of Bushehr. "So there has been a great concern that in the context of an ostensibly civilian, ostensibly innocent project other transfers have occurred," he says. "Certainly personal connections have been made and there have been ample opportunities for Iranians to come to Moscow for training. For Moscow, for Russian specialists to go to Iran and so forth. So I don't think anyone knows the full extent of what has been transferred under this umbrella and it has been a source of concern from the outset. Both the Clinton Administration and the Bush Administration have been very nervous and uncomfortable about this project."

A Russian specialist at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, Ariel Cohen, says the relationship between Moscow and Washington is being jeopardized by Russia's transfer of nuclear know-how and technology to Iran. "There is a great concern that we may be missing a strategic opportunity to build a partnership with Russia on such issues as the war on terrorism and U.S. energy security. Russia is a great exporter of oil and wants to be one of the principle exporters of oil to the U.S. market, but all that important cooperation that our two presidents, President Bush and President Vladimir Putin of Russia, worked diligently since coming to their respective offices, can be endangered by lack of understanding on behalf of those Russian officials who authorize this technology transfer," he says.

Michael Eisenstadt, a Middle East specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says Iran has a long history of trying to obtain weapons of mass destruction. "The bottom line is they are not developing nuclear weapons just for security concerns. There is also the issue of power, influence, national pride, which I think is a very powerful driver and explains both the fact that Iran under the Shah was pursuing nuclear weapons and Iran under the mullahs is pursuing nuclear weapons," he says.

While Iran says it is obtaining nuclear technology for peaceful uses to generate electricity, U.S. officials argue the country has vast oil and gas reserves and does not need nuclear energy.

Russian officials have denied that Moscow's role in building Iran's first nuclear power plant could help Tehran develop nuclear weapons.