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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ministries: No Need for New Iran Deal

ReutersIran's ambassador to Russia, Gholamreza Shafeisergei.
The Nuclear Power and Foreign ministries teamed up Thursday to declare that Russia will supply nuclear fuel to Iran even if it refuses to agree to international inspections at short notice.

This contradicts the claim made Wednesday by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who said President Vladimir Putin had assured him that Russia would deliver no nuclear fuel until Tehran signed an additional protocol to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which would subject Iranian nuclear sites to short-notice inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The Kremlin has not confirmed Blair's claim.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Yakovenko told a briefing on Thursday that Moscow will only freeze construction of the $1 billion nuclear power plant in Bushehr if Iran refuses to agree to return all spent nuclear fuel from the plant to Russia.

This was echoed by the Nuclear Power Ministry, which controls the general contractor in the construction of Bushehr.

The issue of whether Iran signs the protocol "does worry us," Nuclear Power Ministry spokesman Nikolai Shinkaryov said Thursday by telephone. "However, this is not required," he said, adding that what is required is that Iran sign an agreement to return all spent fuel from Bushehr. The plant had been expected to come on line in 2004, but this week the ministry pushed it back to 2005.

Shinkaryov said Iran is not stalling with the spent fuel agreement. On the contrary, it is the Russian side that is sorting out the "technicalities" as the draft goes from one government agency to another for amendments and authorization, he said. A final draft should be ready for the government's approval in a month, he said.

Iran's ambassador to Russia, Gholamreza Shafei, said Thursday that an agreement on repatriating the spent fuel had already been drafted and Tehran was ready to sign. "We are only waiting until Russia settles some ecological aspects," he said at a news conference.

While reiterating Iran's readiness to return the fuel, Shafei said the agreement will be signed as a result of Russia giving in to U.S. pressure. "I believe the fact of such a request [from Russia] was a product of pressure," he said. "Initially there was anxiety on the American side."

However, Iran has no plans to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty protocol, the ambassador said. By signing the protocol, Iran, which is a signatory to the treaty, would only be assuming obligations since it would be unlikely to be rewarded by broader cooperation from other countries in developing its own nuclear technology, he said.

"The meat and bones must come together," the Iranian diplomat said.

Yakovenko, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, said Russia is "actively pushing" Iran to sign the protocol, but refusal to do so will not derail the two countries' nuclear cooperation.

"The protocol is an agreement that is signed on a voluntary basis" and Russia believes that not just Iran but all countries developing nuclear power plants should sign it, he said.

The ministries' stance appeared to contradict the spirit if not the letter of Putin's statements at the G-8 summit in Evian earlier this week.

Speaking at a Tuesday briefing, Putin said Russia will continue to build the Bushehr plant, but will "continue to insist that all Iranian programs in the nuclear sphere be placed under the control of this [IAEA] organization.

Shafei said Thursday that Iran was willing to accept IAEA oversight of its nuclear program, even though it refused to sign the protocol.

At the G-8 summit, the U.S. delegation fruitlessly sought a strong condemnation of Iran's alleged efforts to secretly develop a nuclear-weapons program.

Inspectors from the IAEA, the UN's nuclear watchdog, have visited the Iranian facilities that Washington alleges may be harboring a nuclear weapons program, but found no violations, Nuclear Power Minister Alexander Rumyantsev said Wednesday.

To follow up claims by an Iranian opposition group that Iran has 200 centrifuges capable of enriching uranium at a site in Natanz, IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei personally spearheaded an inspection of the site, but no violations were found, Rumyantsev said.

IAEA spokesman Mark Gwozdecky could not be reached for comment Thursday. ElBaradei is set to present a report on Iran's nuclear program to the IAEA board at its Vienna headquarters on June 16-17.

Shafei said Iran has its own deposits of radioactive elements and is building facilities for their enrichment, but so far no nuclear fuel has been produced.

"Our efforts to produce nuclear fuel are at the beginning stage. I am sure that for the next 10 years we will buy nuclear fuel from Russia," he said.

Ivan Safranchuk of the Center for Defense Information characterized Russia's position on Iran's nuclear program as "eclectic at best," with the industrial lobby pushing for unhindered cooperation even though it is not in Moscow's interest to have another nuclear-armed state in the Caspian region.

Brenda Shaffer, research director of the Caspian Studies Program at Harvard University, agreed, noting "the often contradictory nature" of statements made by senior Russian officials on cooperation with Iran. This indicates that "Moscow is currently rethinking its policy on its cooperation with Iran," Shaffer wrote in an e-mail response to questions.