U.S. Says Russia Now Worried About Iran

Russia has begun to share some of Washington's fears about Iran's ballistic missile and nuclear programs, a senior Bush administration official said.

"They are now more persuaded than they were before that Iran does have a clandestine nuclear weapons program," the U.S. official said Wednesday, speaking on condition that he not be further identified. "I think for some time the Russians felt that Iranians can't develop a nuclear weapons program. I think now they're beginning to see that in fact they are."

In another sign of Moscow's shifting attitudes, Russian Aviation and Space Agency chief Yury Koptev acknowledged this week in talks with a visiting U.S. delegation that individual Russian scientists or engineers may be helping Iran build missiles, the U.S. official said.

"Obviously, the expansion of their capabilities in ballistic missiles -- their ability to have longer-range missiles -- worries us, and we think should worry the Russians as well," he said.

Washington is particularly concerned about Russia's help to Iran in the construction of a 1,000-megawatt light-water reactor in Bushehr, a project begun decades ago and revived in the mid-1990s. Undersecretary of State John Bolton, who met with Russian space and nuclear energy officials this week, said at a Tuesday news conference that he had stressed "the importance of not having Russian assistance ... to any Iranian programs involving weapons of mass destruction or ballistic missiles."

The United States believes that the Bushehr project, valued at $800 million, is a cover for obtaining sensitive technologies to develop nuclear weapons. But Russia has insisted that the project is entirely peaceful, and it has cited an Iranian commitment to return spent fuel to Russia, which would help limit the risk of nuclear proliferation.

That commitment by Iran, however, is now in doubt.

Iranian President Mohammad Khatami announced this month that Iran has begun mining uranium for use in nuclear power plants and will reprocess spent fuel itself rather than sending it all to Russia. Possessing this sort of complete "fuel cycle" would go far toward making it possible for Iran to produce weapons-grade plutonium. But Khatami insisted that the program was peaceful.

The U.S. official speaking Wednesday ridiculed that idea. "Here's a country that floats on oil," he said. "What do they need a nuclear fuel cycle for? Not their abstract interest in nuclear physics. ... They are now well along in a very sophisticated program for the development of nuclear weapons capability."

Alexander Konovalov, president of the Institute for the Strategic Assessment think tank, said Russia should be far more careful with exporting technology that can be used both for civilian and military purposes. Making such sales is "like dancing in a minefield," he said. "If you are lucky, you won't step on a land mine. But what if you are not?"

Moscow is aware of the risk, but its attitude on nuclear exports to Iran is still ambivalent, Konovalov said. "On the one hand, it is absolutely not in Russia's interest if Iran becomes a nuclear power," he said.

Yet at the same time, "Russia does not want to lose the Iranian market, nor does it want Iran to view Russia as a unfriendly neighbor," he said.