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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia Rebuffs U.S. on Iran Deal

U.S. officials eager to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons privately have offered a potentially lucrative economic deal to Russia in exchange for halting construction of an atomic reactor and other cooperation with Tehran, but Moscow has resisted the proposal.

The Americans told the Russians that if they cut off all avenues of nuclear proliferation to Iran, President George W. Bush's administration would work to lift restrictions on the import of spent nuclear fuel to Russia, officials from both countries said this week. Russia believes it can make billions of dollars by storing and reprocessing radioactive material from around the world, but it has been blocked by the United States.

Such a trade-off could eliminate a major dispute that has aggravated U.S. presidents and soured U.S.-Russian relations for years. Russian scientists are working to complete construction of a light-water nuclear reactor at the Iranian coastal city of Bushehr, a project U.S. officials believe has served as cover for the transfer of weapons technology. Russia has defied all U.S. pressure to cancel work at Bushehr and denied any clandestine aid to Iran.

By proposing an exchange for spent fuel, Washington hoped that incentives might work where badgering had not. Yet the suggested deal appeared to be foundering, at least in part because of the mistrust engendered by what Moscow perceives as the broken U.S. promises of the past year.

In an interview, Yury Bespalko, a spokesman for the Nuclear Power Ministry, noted that the United States has not lived up to its commitment to remove its Jackson-Vanik trade restrictions on Moscow, made last year after President Vladimir Putin threw his support behind the U.S.-led war on terrorism. The Jackson-Vanik amendment bars countries that lack market economies and open emigration policies from enjoying normal trade relations with the United States.

"Americans are being rather sly when they offer this kind of swap," Bespalko said of the latest proposal. Russia, he added, would rather keep the existing $800 million Bushehr project than rely on another U.S. promise of future benefits. "It's better to have a bird in the hand than two in the bush," he said.

U.S. officials appeared uncertain how vigorously to pursue the deal, with some considering it unlikely to happen and others still sensing the prospect of an agreement with Russia.

"I don't think the Russians themselves have a coherent position on it," said a senior U.S. official who asked not to be identified. "We're picking up different vibes from different people." In part, he said, that may stem from U.S. ambivalence.

Clearing the way for Russia to import spent nuclear fuel would be controversial with environmental groups and some members of Congress. Critics contend that Russia would contaminate its environment while not keeping the spent fuel sufficiently secure. Environmentalists and Russian civic groups failed to block the State Duma from adopting a plan last year to import spent fuel, which the government said could bring in $20 billion over two decades.

Washington controls the disposition of spent fuel from all U.S.-built reactors in the United States and other countries -- as much as 90 percent of the world's spent fuel.