Russia refuses to stop aiding Iran's nuclear programme

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The Independent Online

Russia refused this weekend to abandon its efforts to bring Iran's nuclear power programme on line, which it is feared will help Iran to develop nuclear weapons.

Russia refused this weekend to abandon its efforts to bring Iran's nuclear power programme on line, which it is feared will help Iran to develop nuclear weapons.

Iran will soon commission its first civil nuclear plant at Bushehr, greatly speeding up its clandestine race to produce a nuclear weapon that could threaten its neighbours – unless it brings a pre-emptive attack from Israel, which destroyed Iraq's only nuclear reactor in 1981.

Russia is now actively co-operating with Iran to complete the Bushehr reactor, which experts say will provide Iranian scientists and engineers with the ability to produce weapons-grade nuclear fissile material. From there it is a short step to building a bomb that can be delivered by the long-range missiles that Iran has reportedly acquired from North Korea.

Russia rejected the latest US attempts to persuade it to stop helping Iran. Washington has dangled the prospect of a $10bn (£6.4bn) radioactive material storage project for Russia in return, an issue the US was expected to raise with Russia at the Asia Pacific economic summit in Mexico this weekend. But Russia insists the project will go ahead. "Russia is not providing any weapons technologies, and is not even negotiating such projects with Iran," said Moscow's atomic energy minister, Alexandr Rumyantsev.

The Bushehr nuclear facility has already cost Iran billions of dollars since work began before the revolution against the Shah of Iran. The site was attacked six times by Iraq during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war and the core of two nearly completed reactors were destroyed.

Fears that Israel could attack the long-delayed plant are very much alive in Tehran. "Everyone in Iran is concerned about the Israeli threat," Kamel Kharrazi, Tehran's foreign minister, told The Independent on Sunday. "They have missiles; they have everything. That is why we have been trying to develop our missile technology to defend ourselves." The nuclear facility at Bushehr was to produce electricity, he said, "and we are negotiating with the Russians to provide fuel for the power plant to be returned afterwards".

The fact that the plant is being built under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards has not eased concerns in the West. About 3,000 Russian personnel are already working at the Bushehr plant, and the large movement of equipment and technicians between Russia and Iran is the perfect cover for covert weapons-related assistance or smuggling, say international non-proliferation agencies.

Suggestions that the country is trying to build a bomb were also sharply denied by Iran's environment minister and vice-president, Massoumeh Ebtekar. Even though the country has the world's second largest gas reserves and third largest oil reserves, it needed to diversify its sources of energy. "[The nuclear programme] is totally peaceful," she said. "There is no reason why you should think otherwise."

Worries about Iran's secret efforts to build a bomb have also been fuelled by attempts to buy reactors from China.