Russia is to begin supplying Iran with nuclear fuel early next year despite mounting concern in the West that this could accelerate Tehran’s plans to build a nuclear bomb.
Sergei Shmatko, head of Atomstroyexport, Russia’s state nuclear fuel exporter, said last week that preparations to send fuel to Iran would start next month and the first consignment was expected to reach the Islamic republic in early spring.
The announcement, at a time when Russia is asserting itself as an energy power, has caused anxiety in western countries which are trying to convince the Kremlin to end its nuclear co-operation with Tehran.
The concerns were strengthened yesterday when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was reported to have told a Kuwaiti envoy that Iran was ready to transfer its nuclear technology to neighbouring countries.
The nuclear fuel will be sent to Bushehr, Iran’s first nuclear power station, which has been built by Russia over the past decade as part of a £450m contract. Iran says the plant will be used to produce energy and that its nuclear programme is solely for civilian purposes.
Officially at least Moscow accepts the claim. The West has little doubt that Tehran’s real aim is to build a nuclear bomb and is afraid that as a nuclear power Iran would threaten Israel and destabilise the region.
Shmatko estimated Bushehr would become operational about six months after the first fuel reaches it in March.
“We are simply fulfilling our contractual obligations,” said Irina Esipova, of Atomstroyexport. “Every country has a right to develop its own peaceful nuclear power programme. The fuel is ready and in storage in Siberia. In the spring it will be sent to Tehran by plane.”
After lengthy negotiations last year Moscow signed an agreement with Iran that the Russians believe will prevent the Islamic republic from developing a nuclear device.
Spent nuclear fuel produced at the Bushehr plant is to be sent back to Russia for storage and the process will be monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency. But there are fears in America that Iran will find ways of siphoning off spent fuel containing plutonium, which could be used for a bomb.
Far from seeking to appease the United States, Russia has been in talks with Iran about the possibility of building as many as five more reactors, including a second one at Bushehr, over the next 10 years.
“The Russians are playing a complex game of brinkmanship,” said a western diplomat. “The contracts with Iran are lucrative but they also give the Kremlin influence.
“On the other hand it knows the Iranians want the bomb. To allow this to happen would not be in Russia’s interest so it wants to help Tehran but not so much as to allow it to build a bomb. It may be a shrewd game but it’s also dangerous. The Russians may yet decide to postpone fuel shipments.”
The timing of Atomstroyexport’s announcement has also raised eyebrows since it came in the week that the United Nations is debating Iran’s nuclear programme. Russia, which has the power of veto in the security council, has up to now opposed imposing sanctions on Tehran.
America, Britain, France and Germany quietly agreed this autumn to exclude the issue of Russian assistance for Bushehr as a way of securing agreement for sanctions.
Ilan Berman, an expert on Iran at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, said that the American view was: “If doing a deal with Bushehr is the only way to get an agreement on sanctions, then so be it.” Bushehr is too well known to be regarded as a prime site for development of nuclear weapons.
“However, if the Iranians do go nuclear, it will be a large component in the story of how they succeeded,” Berman said.
The Kremlin has recently softened its stance at the UN and may be open to a resolution that puts pressure on the Iranians but falls short of full sanctions. Talks resumed on Friday at ambassadorial level and may be put to a vote at the security council this week.