Russia agrees to supply nuclear fuel to Iran

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The Independent Online

Russia agreed a deal with Iran yesterday to provide nuclear fuel for the country's only nuclear reactor, enabling the plant to come on stream next year amid US fears that Tehran may be developing a nuclear weapon.

Russia agreed a deal with Iran yesterday to provide nuclear fuel for the country's only nuclear reactor, enabling the plant to come on stream next year amid US fears that Tehran may be developing a nuclear weapon.

The agreement, signed by the two countries' nuclear chiefs at the site of the Russian-built plant at Bushehr, in southern Iran, provides for the first consignment of enriched uranium to be dispatched to Iran from Siberia in the middle of next year.

To allay US concerns, Russia has agreed to reprocess on its territory the spent fuel, which can be reprocessed to make bomb-grade plutonium. Speaking at Thursday's summit with the Russian President Vladimir Putin in Slovakia, President George Bush said both sides agreed "Iran should not have a nuclear weapon".

However, a leading Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Senator John McCain, strongly objected yesterday to the signing of the nuclear fuel deal, which had been expected for some time. He said Russia should not be invited to the G8 summit in Gleneagles in July. "This latest step of the Russians vis-a-vis the Iranians calls for sterner measures to be taken between ourselves and Russia. It has got to, at some point, begin to harm our relations," Mr McCain said on Fox News Sunday.

But a nuclear expert said the move "should be welcomed. Russia is taking the spent fuel back home. It's going to prevent proliferation".

Iran insists it is not bent on developing a nuclear weapon, and the Kremlin says it has seen no evidence of such a move. Neither has the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN watchdog which has been monitoring Iran's nuclear programme intensively for the past two years.

A senior Iranian official recognised earlier this month that Iran would risk devastating retaliation if it were to develop a nuclear bomb. That view has been echoed by the American diplomat who directed the State Department's Iran desk during the 1979 Iranian revolution. "I don't think they are really looking for nuclear weapons," said Henry Precht. "They realise they would be smashed by Israel or by us."

Yesterday's development came on the eve of a governors' board meeting of the IAEA which will review progress on the Iran dossier. Although Mohamed ElBaradei, the agency's director general, will give an overview of the Iran case today, his deputy, Pierre Goldschmidt, is expected to confirm in his presentation tomorrow a report that Pakistan offered Iran the makings of a nuclear weapons programme in 1987.

According to The Washington Post, the offer from the father of Pakistan's nuclear bomb, AQ Khan, resulted from a secret meeting between Pakistani and Iranian officials in Dubai. Tehran has now informed the IAEA that it turned down the offer, but according to the American paper it did acquire some more expensive items by shopping around elsewhere.

A Western diplomat said the Pakistani offer was "the strongest indication to date that Iran had a nuclear weapons programme, but it doesn't prove it completely".

The US has been threatening to report Iran to the UN Security Council for sanctions, and it remains to be seen how the US delegation will react to the latest revelation about Iran's earlier contacts with Pakistan.

Mr Bush appeared to rule out referral to the Council when he said in Brussels last week that "we're in the early stages of diplomacy" on the issue.

Three European countries, Britain, France and Germany, are taking the lead in negotiations with Iran, which has agreed to freeze its uranium enrichment programme in return for technological and trade concessions.

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