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Iran Shows Off New Nuclear Plant - 2003-03-13

Eighty journalists and photographers were given a tour Tuesday, of Iran's first nuclear power plant, which is under construction in the southwest of the country. The United States says the plant is part of an effort by Iran to develop nuclear weapons, something Iran vehemently denies.

An expert on Iran says while it is unlikely Tehran is currently trying to develop nuclear weapons, the plant, she says, will enable Iran to build nuclear weapons in a few years. The deputy head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, Assadollah Sabori, said this week that construction of Iran's first nuclear power plant is 70 percent complete.

The plant is located in Bushehr, in southwestern Iran, and is being built with the help of Russia.

Iran has announced that it will receive its first shipment of 90 tons of enriched uranium from Russia in May, and it expects the startup of the nuclear reactor at Bushehr to take place toward the end of next year.

To achieve independence from foreign suppliers of energy, Iran says it eventually hopes to produce 6,000 megawatts of electricity from nuclear reactors.

The nuclear plant in Bushehr will produce 1,000 megawatts, and Iran says it intends to build a host of other nuclear facilities to meet its energy demands.

While Iran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only, the United States believes otherwise. U.S. officials have said the Bushehr plant will provide Iran with the capability to produce weapons-grade plutonium for possible use in a crude nuclear explosive.

Pakinam el-Sharkawy, an expert on Iran who teaches at the Faculty of Political and Economic Science in Cairo, says it is clear Iran is developing the capabilities to, one day, produce nuclear weapons. However, she does not believe Tehran is actively pursuing such weapons, for now, because of the current political climate in the region and the presence of hundreds of thousands of American and British troops in the area.

"Until now it was only limited to a peaceful use. But, of course, by having the good infrastructure for a nuclear program [Iran] could, in the future, produce a nuclear weapon," she said. " But, at least on the next five years to come I don't think [Iran] will try to enter this adventure, regarding all the new strategic balances in the region, especially around their borders. So I think they are wise enough to just keep, for the short run, their own use of nuclear to the peaceful means."

Ms. el-Sharkawy says there is "quiet support" in the Middle East for Iran's nuclear program and possible construction of nuclear weapons. She says Arab leaders have long sought a counter-balance to Israel's nuclear arms.

Iranian officials say all spent fuel from the nuclear reactors it plans to build will be shipped to Russia under tight controls. Russia has given its assurances that Iran has no plans to produce nuclear military projects.

This week Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said Iran has "nothing to hide" and he dismissed American allegations that Iran is trying to produce nuclear weapons.