April 27, 2006

US mulls nuclear cooperation agreement with Russia

By Carol Giacomo, Diplomatic Correspondent

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States is discussing the
possibility of a civilian nuclear energy agreement with Russia
that could help wean Moscow away from cooperation with Iran,
according to U.S. officials.

The move comes as Western powers are increasingly alarmed
about what they say is Iran's determination to produce nuclear

Diplomatic efforts to persuade Tehran to reverse course so
far have been frustrated, in part because of U.S. and allied
differences with Russia, the only major power still engaging in
lucrative nuclear cooperation with the Islamic republic.

In recent interviews, several U.S. officials said a
possible nuclear energy accord with Moscow is under review.
They spoke anonymously because the issue is sensitive and no
final decision has been made.

Such an agreement would be a significant change in U.S.
policy, which now prohibits most nuclear cooperation with
Russia because of Moscow's pivotal role in building Iran's $800
million nuclear power plant at Bushehr.

A cooperation agreement is "something that we're actively
evaluating" and have discussed with the Russians over the past
two months, one official told Reuters.

"It would provide a foundation for greater (U.S.-Russia)
cooperation but doesn't commit the sides to any particular
project and could be a way of demonstrating to the Russians how
much larger our market is than what exists in Iran," he added.

Russia has long defended its nuclear cooperation and
conventional arms sales to Iran as a critical revenue source.


U.S. officials have intensified efforts to get Moscow to
end both pursuits to penalize Iran for defying the U.N.
Security Council, which has demanded Tehran halt uranium
enrichment activities. Iran insists it only wants to produce
energy, not weapons.

While Russia remains committed to Bushehr, U.S. officials
say work has slowed and Moscow still has not delivered critical
nuclear fuel for the reactor.

Robert Einhorn, a former top U.S. nonproliferation
official, said a nuclear agreement with Russia is a sound idea
"but whether by itself it will constitute a sufficient carrot
for Russia to take a tougher position on Iran remains to be

The United States has as much to gain from an agreement as
Russia, and Moscow is unlikely to make major concessions just
to get it, "but it does provide an incentive for Russia to want
to benefit from cooperation with the U.S.," said Einhorn, of
the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

A recent bi-partisan study by the Council on Foreign
Relations concluded that Russia is "the only power that can
effectively threaten Iran with nuclear isolation if it
continues to build sensitive nuclear fuel-cycle facilities."

It urged Washington to negotiate a nuclear energy
agreement, saying while "it should not be necessary to buy
Russia's support, successful cooperation does have to rest on
mutual confidence" and this can be strengthened by a stronger
legal framework for cooperation on nuclear issues.

The nuclear deal will allow expanded cooperation, including
the administration's Global Nuclear Energy Partnership
Initiative, and "will reflect Russia's status as a major factor
in nuclear commerce, from fuel supply and storage to reactor
sales and advanced research," the study said.

Since the end of the Cold War, the United States and Russia
have worked to reduce nuclear weapons risks, including a highly
successful program under which Russia is blending down 500 tons
of weapons-grade material so it can be used to generate
electricity rather than for weapons.

The United States, backed by Britain and France, favors
limited sanctions if Iran refuses to halt enrichment very soon.
Russia and China, the Security Council's other two veto-holding
permanent members, have so far opposed this.