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Friday, 16 August, 2002, 23:19 GMT 00:19 UK
Russia's Iran nuclear link angers US
US President George Bush shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin
Bush and Putin appear to enjoy each other's company

It has been a blossoming relationship since Russian President Vladimir Putin offered the US President George W Bush a sympathetic ear in America's hour of need.

Since 11 September, both men have been proud to call each other friends.

But there is one issue threatening to come between them: an $800m nuclear reactor being built by the Russians in Iran.

The US is keeping a close eye on it via satellite - and believes the reactor is almost 80% complete.

We have long been concerned that Iran's only interest in nuclear civil power... is to support its nuclear weapons programme

US Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham
Begun by a German firm in 1972, the project was abandoned after the Iranian revolution in 1979.

Then, a decade ago, the deal to finish it was signed by Moscow and Tehran.

Washington fears it could help Iran create nuclear weapons - perhaps using the expertise of Russian nuclear scientists.

US concerns

The US Secretary of State for Energy, Spencer Abraham, came to Moscow to express his government's utmost concern that Russia was pushing ahead with the reactor.

"Iran is aggressively pursuing nuclear weapons, weapons of mass destruction, long-range missiles, and we have long been concerned that Iran's only interest in nuclear civil power - given its vast domestic energy resources - is to support its nuclear weapons programme."

That is an allegation strongly denied by the Iranian ambassador to Moscow, Gulam Reza Shafeii.

He says the nuclear reactor at Bushehr was inspected 60 times last year by international experts.

And he insists Iran has every right to develop nuclear energy.

"The US, Great Britain, France, Germany, Russia - all these countries get energy from nuclear power stations," Iran's ambassador said.

Economically, it is a very profitable project for us

Lev Ryabev
Russian energy official

"And under the 1970 nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which we signed, no-one can take this legal right away from us. The Americans claim that the spent nuclear fuel from Bushehr could be used for military purposes - but that's not true.

"First of all, it's being tightly controlled, and secondly, there's an agreement that the spent fuel will be sent back to Russia."

Skin deep?

The real question is: why is President Putin so prepared to risk his good relations with George Bush in order to cosy up to Iran?

Is this just old-style wheeling and dealing at the Kremlin, with Moscow playing one side off against the other?

Or is it proof that Mr Putin's new friendship with Mr Bush is only skin deep?

Russian analyst Konstantin Eggert believes not. He has worked in Iran and says there are many other reasons why Russia is determination to carry on with this project despite US objections.

"One is money, which the Ministry of Atomic Energy of Russia expects to earn from this contract and from its continuation well into the next decade," Mr Eggert said.

"And on the other side it is political. The Ministry of Atomic Energy and the rest of the Russian military defence elite view themselves as keepers of the Russian imperial flame, and the only people who can oppose the American influence in the world.

Iranian young women hold signs at a demonstration
Anti-US sentiment is again strong in Iran

"And to them Iran is a very good ideological cause, too."

The blossoming relationship between Iran and Russia even extends to friendly visits to Russia's own nuclear facilities, and Moscow's Ministry of Atomic Energy is hoping it can sell even more reactors to Tehran.

"Economically, it is a very profitable project for us. It is a big contract - worth hundreds of million of dollars - and it creates jobs for people," said Lev Ryabev, Russian deputy atomic energy minister, adding that Moscow also does not want Iran to acquire nuclear weapons.

"We're far from indifferent about whether Iran possesses nuclear weapons, because geographically we're much closer to Iran than the US is."

Tough test

On the streets of Tehran, Iranians make clear their anger at being called part of America's axis of evil.

The antagonism between Iran and the US is bad news for Russia.

It could prove the toughest test yet of Mr Putin's new ties with the West - and Russia doesn't want to be forced to choose between friends and allies.

But in the end Mr Putin may have to. If he doesn't bow to Washington's demands, he could find himself looking at the end of a beautiful relationship.

The BBC's Steve Rosenberg
"In Moscow Iraq is viewed as a close ally"
See also:

02 Aug 02 | Middle East
01 Aug 02 | Middle East
24 May 02 | Europe
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