Thursday, December 20, 2007

Russia Supplies Nuclear Fuel to Iran

The complex triad of relations between the U.S., Russia, and Iran got a little messier Monday when Russia announced its sale of nuclear fuel to Iran.

The delivery of lowly enriched uranium fuel rods to Iran's Bushehr power plant was not a surprise to the international community. It had been delayed several times in the past, and the Bush administration had a few weeks warning before Monday's announcement. This knowledge, however, does not diminish the extent to which this may affect relations between Iran and Russia, nor the extent to which it will complicate each country's already strained interactions with the U.S.

Development of the power plants at Bushehr and Darkhovin were planned before 1979 and then abandoned. The plan to further develop Bushehr with nuclear fuel from Russia has been delayed multiple times, whether in part because of international pressure not to acquiesce to Iran's nuclear desires, or because of publicly announced financial disputes.

Additional information on all of Iran's key nuclear sites can be found here.

According to the AFP, a representative for Atomstroiexport, the Russian contracting group responsible for the project, the plant will not be up and running before – at a minimum – the end of 2008. Two additional months are needed just to finish delivering the fuel rods, and tests will start six months after the deliveries are complete.

Russia has assured the international community that the fuel will be under the control of the IAEA, and Iran has "guaranteed" that it will only be used for the power plant at Bushehr and not be diverted for other purposes, reports the Times. Though some safeguards have been agreed to, concerns remain over exactly what will happen with the spent fuel.

"We for many years tried to stop [the sale], and for the last year we've known there was not a way to stop it, and that it was coming, and we held our breath on the timing," a senior Bush administration official told the NYT. This is not the moment they would have chosen.

In addition to coming during times of increased tension between Russia and the U.S. over America's planned missile defense site in Europe, the announcement came just weeks after international support for hawkish U.S. policies against Iran decreased in response to the NIE that identified Iran had ended its nuclear weapons program in the fall of 2003. Russia and China, already the most hesitant of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council to agree to tougher sanctions on Iran, are now demonstrating even less willingness to side with U.S. policies.

Bush PR

While American and European officials stated privately that, "Russia's decision to deliver fuel to Bushehr further encourages Iran," the Bush administration has not publicly criticized the Russian sale.

On the contrary, they've attempted to validate the sale and fit it into their own vision for Iran. "If the Iranians accept that uranium for a civilian nuclear power plant, then there's not need for them to learn how to enrich," Bush stated. White House spokesperson Gordon Johndroe framed it as support from Russia for an ending to enrichment on Iranian soil. "There is no doubt that Russia and the rest of the world want to keep Iran from getting a nuclear weapon," he stated.

While there isn't a complete lack of validity in some of these points, Russia's sale is arguably more significant in its encouragement of the development of an Iranian nuclear program than its attempt to decrease Iran's desire for its own enrichment cycle.

Iran PR

This perspective is confirmed by Iran. Gholam Reza Aghazadeh, head of Iran's own atomic energy organization, has announced that the sale does not indicate a cessation of their desire to enrich uranium on their own soil. The country plans to enrich uranium at the Natanz facility for a second power plant at Darkhovin, just as the Russian fuel will be used at Bushehr.

For Iran's own PR offensive, deputy head of the organization Mohammad Saeedi argued that the sale was a first step in deepening relations between Iran and Russia "in all fields in the future."

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