WASHINGTON -- Worried that Iran is seeking to develop nuclear weapons, the Clinton administration is increasing its efforts to discourage Russia and China from selling atomic reactors to Tehran that might help it become a nuclear power.
Ignoring pleas from Washington, Russia has signed an $800 million contract to finish construction of two large reactors in Iran, while China is negotiating to sell reactors there.
In recent weeks, the administration has increased its pressures in the hope that Moscow and Beijing will relent.
Warning that such dealings could sour relations, Secretary of State Warren Christopher said in a speech last Friday: "Today Iran is engaged in a crash effort to develop nuclear weapons. We are deeply concerned that some nations are prepared to cooperate with Iran in the nuclear field. I will not mince words. These efforts risk the security of the entire Middle East. The United States places the highest priority on denying Iran a nuclear weapons capability."
With Iraq's ability to make nuclear weapons wiped out in the Persian Gulf War and North Korea having agreed to freeze its nuclear program, U.S. officials now view Iran as the biggest potential nuclear threat in the developing world.
Two weeks ago, Defense Secretary William J. Perry estimated that "it would be many, many years" before Iran achieved a nuclear capability. Nonetheless, he and other U.S. officials have said that Tehran might be able to build weapons much sooner than that if other nations sell it advanced technologies or fuel that can sustain a nuclear chain reaction.
The campaign to block Iran from obtaining nuclear technologies has taken several forms. In a meeting last week in Geneva, Christopher pressed Russian Foreign Minister Andrei V. Kozyrev to get his country to drop its contract to complete two light-water reactors at Bushehr on the Persian Gulf.
But Russia, eager to obtain cash, rejected Mr. Christopher's plea to cancel the contract, which was announced early this month. The Russians say they should be free to furnish Iran with nuclear technology, since Tehran is allowing inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency and is complying with the other terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as well.
While granting that Iran appears to be complying with the treaty, the Clinton administration has warned Russia and China that it would be unwise to provide such technology to an unpredictable, fundamentalist state that is hostile to the Middle East peace effort.
"Our view is it's essential to stop such a program at the earliest stage," a State Department official said. "If you wait until you have an Iraq kind of situation, it may be too late."