Russia warned to halt Iran reactor plans or risk U.S. nuclear pacts

April 09, 1995|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration has repeatedly warned Moscow in recent months that unless it cancels a project to build nuclear reactors in Iran, the United States will drop plans for nuclear cooperation that Russia badly wants, senior administration officials said yesterday.

Last week, Russian officials brushed aside these warnings and insisted that they would go ahead with the reactor project. But administration officials said they hoped the warnings, together with a growing campaign of pressure and inducements, would persuade Russia to announce plans to cancel the Iranian deal when President Clinton visits Moscow next month.

U.S. officials have told Russia that if it carries out the contract to build the Iranian reactors, the United States will neither move forward on renewing a 22-year-old nuclear cooperation agreement nor sign a broad, new agreement that would vastly increase such cooperation, including giving Russia advice on building more modern reactors.

Hoping to frustrate Iran's efforts to develop nuclear weapons, the administration first warned the Russians in February -- and renewed the warning in recent weeks -- that it might scrap nuclear cooperation programs if the Iranian deal goes through. The warnings are intended to show the Russians that the West will penalize them for building the Iranian reactors, U.S. officials said.

The existing agreement gives Moscow important assistance on nuclear safety and scientific research. More importantly, the new agreement would help Russia's cash-starved Atomic Energy Ministry by advising it on new reactor designs, opening American markets to its nuclear products and allowing American companies to form joint ventures to help finance new Russian reactors.

"While we haven't presented them with an ultimatum, we let them know that it will be hard to follow through on this nuclear cooperation if they don't reach the right conclusion on the Iran project," a senior administration official said. "We're trying to show this will not be cost-free to them."

The threat comes as frictions between Washington and Moscow have grown over other issues, including Russia's military offensive in Chechnya and its strong opposition to U.S. plans to expand NATO.

With Mr. Clinton scheduled to visit Moscow on May 9 and 10 for a summit meeting with Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin, the administration hopes these disputes can be resolved, or at least contained, so the U.S.-Russian relationship can remain friendly overall. But some administration officials fear that the disputes could cause the shaky relationship to spiral downward, especially since the administration is threatening Russia with penalties if it takes actions that clash with U.S. interests.

Convinced that Tehran has a crash program to develop an atomic bomb, the administration has put the goal of checking Iran's atomic ambitions at the center of its dealings with Moscow and of its efforts to stop nuclear proliferation.

Administration officials said yesterday that Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, who is visiting Moscow, had urged Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin and Foreign Minister Andrei V. Kozyrev to drop the Iran deal and warned that it was placing new strains on relations.

Russia's plans call for building up to four reactors in Bushehr, an Iranian city on the Persian Gulf.

The administration is so angry about the deal that it canceled a high-level meeting in Moscow last month in which atomic experts would have discussed renewing the existing agreement and signing the new one.

According to administration officials, the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy presented them with a draft of a broad new nuclear cooperation agreement in January. But the administration warned that it would not move forward on such an accord if Russia carried out its Iran contract, valued at $800 million to $1 billion.

"If they forgo the deal, we're going to have a very positive frame of mind about nuclear cooperation with Russia," a senior State Department official said. "If they don't, it's going to give us another outlook."

U.S. diplomats said the broad new agreement sought by Russia could translate into more than $100 million in business for its Atomic Energy Ministry. The accord would allow the Russians to export nuclear technology to the United States and give the green light to reactor manufacturers such as Westinghouse and Combustion Engineering to enter into joint ventures to build reactors in Russia.

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