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Nuclear shadow

PART 1

Russia may be boosting Iran's nuclear aims

By Anne E. Kornblut, and David Filipov, Globe Staff, 5/19/2002

   
A series of occasional articles on the most worrisome threat in an age of terror.
 THE SERIES

Part 1
Russia may be boosting Iran's nuclear aims

Part 2
Russia has loose grip on nuclear stockpiles

Part 3
Mobile teams on hunt for atomic threats

Part 4
Russia's scattered tactical arms a temptation for terrorists

Part 5
Anti-American mood poses a security risk

 GRAPHICS

How Iran's new reactor would breed plutonium

How NEST searches for radioactive material

Russia's sprawling nuclear arsenal

Tracking Russia's nuclear capability

MOSCOW - It began as a promising business venture. The Russian government would use its reservoir of unemployed nuclear scientists to help Iran build a nuclear power plant, a sophisticated but harmless civilian complex nestled on the eastern banks of the Persian Gulf.

But as work on the Bushehr power plant has progressed, so have Iran's efforts to obtain nuclear weapons technology, according to a Russian scientist who has worked on the venture, as well as several former high-level Russian officials. Contradicting the Kremlin's assertions, these sources say Russia's Atomic Energy Ministry, known as Minatom -- an agency that operates largely without oversight -- is providing a boost to Iran's nuclear arms program, under the guise of the power plant. And US officials say Iran is on the verge of reaching this dangerous goal because of the Russian help.

"So what?" said the Russian scientist, who has traveled to Bushehr several times, and who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity. "The Iranians will acquire these weapons. Pakistan has them. Israel has them. Other countries have them. So what if Iran has them?"

That attitude, and the problem it reflects, are of escalating concern for US officials who have labeled the state of Iran a charter member of the "axis of evil." It is also driving a wedge into US-Russian relations, which both sides would like to portray as close while Bush prepares to visit Moscow this week.

Above all, the Iranian nuclear weapons program is an example of inconsistencies that President Bush may have to resolve as he enters a new phase of his war on terrorism in a complex post-Cold War world, a place made murkier by autonomous relics like Minatom.

The elusive structure of the post-Cold War world, with its global corporations, international terrorist organizations, and autonomous relics like Minatom, can frustrate a search for clarity.

Russian officials argue that the Bushehr power plant is an innocuous, and lucrative, effort to bring power to Iran, similar to the light-water reactor the United States is building for North Korea.

Nuclear proliferation: Skirting the rules

In fact, under the rules of the International Atomic Energy Agency, countries with nuclear knowledge are required to help nonnuclear states to build power plants, and to safeguard the spent fuel to prevent it from being turned into weapons-grade material. Russia and Iran have both pledged to adhere to the agency's rules, to keep Iran from becoming a nuclear power.

But evidence abounds of far more extensive exchanges of nuclear information, according to CIA documents and interviews with dozens of senior Bush administration and Russian officials over the last two months.

Beyond the $840 million that Iran is paying, officially, for the Bushehr power plant, Russian officials and scientists are engaged in clandestine technology transfers, money-laundering schemes and other transactions that have made a fortune for Russian officials, according to several officials interviewed by the Globe.

And that, the scientist said, made it too dangerous to discuss in great detail.

"This is a super-Mafia," the scientist said. "Anything else I might tell you could result in conditions not conducive for life, for me, you and anyone else involved, if you know what I mean."

And yet for all his threats to isolate nations that support terror in any form, Bush is unlikely to downgrade US ties to Russia over Moscow's ties with Iran, which in turn has ties to Hezbollah, which Bush considers a terrorist group.

Administration officials are weighing sanctions against Russia, and Bush may raise the issue at his summit meeting this week with the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, US officials said.

Such concerns have been raised in Congress. "Russia continues to supply significant assistance to many of Tehran's nuclear programs," said Senator Richard C. Shelby, the ranking Republican on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

Of Russia, Shelby said: "I've been there, I've talked with them about these programs, and the president will be talking about this on the highest level. They have told us before that they would cooperate with us against proliferation of weapons of mass destruction."

"But," Shelby added, "what they say and what they do are two different things."

Iran, which has signed nonproliferation treaties, denies that it is seeking nuclear arms technology.

"There is nothing about production of nuclear weapons in the agreement signed between Russia and Iran on use of the atom for peaceful purposes, for generating electrical power," Gholam Reza Shafei, Iran's ambassador to Moscow, said at a news conference in February.

Publicly, officials in Moscow insist that Russia has no interest in seeing Iran, a country they see as a regional rival but not an evil supporter of terrorism that is armed with nuclear weapons.

But Minatom, the Russian atomic energy agency that is cash-hungry, has little regard for official Kremlin policy, and it seems to have no compunctions about any role it might have, or have had, in helping Iran to become a nuclear military power.

A legacy of the Cold War, cloaked in secrecy, Minatom has ignored numerous agreements between Russian and US officials about Iran, and it is continuing to do so, many argue -- funneling sensitive technologies to Iran on the side, under the cover of the Bushehr 1,000-megawatt nuclear power plant.

"It is a serious issue," a senior US official said. "We take it very seriously. Russia should think again about what it's doing."

The matter has been a source of disagreement between the United States and Russia for almost a decade, and it had been a focus of almost every summit meeting that President Clinton held with his Russian counterparts.

But over the past year and a half, a new dynamic has emerged: Despite his close relationship with Bush, Putin, the Russian president, is loath to be seen as bowing to US demands, especially by cracking down on an alliance with Iran that provides jobs for Russian scientists.

Conceived under Stalin as the complex of laboratories and secret "closed cities" where nuclear weapons were designed, built and mass-produced, Minatom is the epitome of Cold War-style secrecy.

A nuclear agency with untold power

Nominally under control of the Russian government, Minatom does not, in fact, report to anyone on how it spends hundreds of millions of dollars, given the tight veil of confidentiality drawn over its operations. There are no independent agencies to monitor Minatom's activity, other than nongovernmental organizations whose effect on Kremlin policy is limited.

The current head of Minatom, Alexander Rumyantsev, insisted during a trip to Washington earlier this month that the light water nuclear reactor under construction in Iran cannot be used to develop material for weapons and does not pose a proliferation threat.

Instead, he said, the project provides jobs in Iran for over 1,000 Russian specialists, as well as machine building firms in Russia, providing a much-needed boost to a sector that has suffered drastically since the end of the Cold War. Minatom is unable to sell its goods to Western markets that remain closed to it, and nuclear scientists, no longer employed by the Soviet government, live in remote, impoverished communities, sometimes not receiving a paycheck for months, their desolation a source of constant worry for nonproliferation specialists.

Bushehr, Rumyantsev told reporters in Washington, "is not a source of proliferation of nuclear material." A Minatom spokesman in Moscow said the ministry needed 45 days to answer any further questions. The Bushehr plant is still under construction, and scheduled to be completed by early 2005.

Iran, which has signed non-proliferation treaties, denies it is seeking nuclear weapons technology.

"There is nothing about production of nuclear weapons in the agreement signed between Russia and Iran on use of the atom for peaceful purposes, for generating electrical power," Gholam Reza Shafei, Iran's ambassador to Moscow, said at a news conference in February.

But "Bushehr is just the tip of the iceberg," a senior US official in Moscow said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "We are quite convinced that dangerous tech transfers are still taking place. There may be some willful criminality in the Atomic Energy Ministry, and some agencies that are getting away with exports on their own."

"I have no doubt that the building of an Atomic reactor in Bushehr is a coverup for Iran's plans to build an atomic bomb," said Alexei Yablokov, who was a senior adviser to the former president, Boris N. Yeltsin, on environmental issues, and who is now the head of the Center for Russian Environmental Policy, a nonprofit group. "It is madness to build them reactors."

He said that the spent nuclear fuel generated by any type of nuclear reactor contains enough uranium and plutonium for the creation of nuclear explosive devices at low cost.

"In three months, 30 people with a college education could do it," Yablokov said. "There is no distinction between civilian and military nuclear programs; that is why handing nuclear technology to such unstable countries as Iran is a suicidal step."

According to Yablokov, in 1995 Minatom contracted to build two facilities that would allow the production of enriched uranium and plutonium needed to produce a nuclear weapon. Yeltsin halted this deal, but Yablokov said Iran's efforts to lean how to build a bomb have since been augmented by student exchanges and the transfer of knowledge from Russian specialists working in Iran.

A CIA report last year said Iran is aggressively pursuing nuclear fuel-cycle capabilities, which "can also support fissile material production for a weapons program." US officials also charge that Russia is helping Iran build long-range missiles that could reach Europe and beyond.

And Maxim Shingarkin, a former officer in the Russian military's secretive 12th Department, which is in charge of strategic weapons, said that with the right knowledge, the reactor in Bushehr could produce weapons-grade plutonium. By replacing the control rods in the nuclear fuel assembly with rods filled with uranium 238 and bombarding the rods with neutrons, he said, the Iranians could produce enough plutonium, over time, to make several bombs. As a longtime purchaser of Russian conventional weaponry, Iran could obtain the uranium 238 from the depleted uranium shells of artillery ordnance.

A Russian response to a bout of US anger

The Russian government does listen to US concerns about proliferation. After the United States imposed sanctions on seven Russian firms whom it had accused of peddling sensitive technologies or materials to Iran in 1998, Russia passed tough legislation putting in place strict controls on the export of sensitive technologies.

But in Iran's closed system, it is difficult for outside intelligence to distinguish civilian technologies from equipment that could be used to develop nuclear weapons. For example, the United States wanted to introduce sanctions against TSAGI, a major Russian aeronautics firm, for a wind tunnel supplied to Iran. But it was impossible for the United States to tell whether the tunnel was of the type needed to test nuclear bombs.

"From the early 1990s, our concern was that this large project would serve as a cover for more sensitive technical interactions between Russians and Iranians," said Robert Einhorn, the Assistant Secretary of the Bureau for Non-proliferation at the State Department in the Clinton administration. Now, he said, "the concerns we had have materialized."

That presents a major setback for weapons control programs, and a major problem for the Bush administration, partly of its own making: Bush distanced himself from Russia at the start of his term, and then, after first meeting Putin in Slovenia last summer, he chose to focus on missile defense and the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty. According to a former Defense Department official, Bush raised the matter of Iran with Putin during one of their four meetings since last year, but it has not been a focus of US discussions in public.

Since January, however, when Bush first cited Iran as part of the "axis of evil" in his State of the Union address, the administration has renewed its focus on the Islamic state and its efforts to obtain nuclear weapons. Under pressure to prove its innocence, Minatom head Rumyantsev traveled to Washington earlier this month to meet with US Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham and assure his US counterpart that Russians are not slipping sensitive material to Iran. After one meeting with Abraham, Rumyantsev admitted it was still a "sensitive topic."

According to several former and current US and Russian officials, Minatom is still a central part of the problem -- aware of technology transfers and making a large profit from its illegitimate work, sometimes at the expense of the larger Russian budget.

On the long trail of research money

In January, Russia's Accounting Chamber issued a report on the disappearance of $270 million in US aid intended to help clean up and build safe storage for the country's radioactive waste. Tens of millions of dollars had also been diverted to "research projects" that, because of their secret nature, remained a mystery.

The Accounting Chamber could not explain where this money goes, but Shingarkin said it disappears in various bookkeeping and money-laundering schemes. Some of the lost funds go to research institutes, which hastily rewrite old research reports and present them as work recently done.

He said that the Iran project is no different. Minatom, Shingarkin said, paid four times the going rate when it bought ventilation systems from a Czech company for the Bushehr reactor. Shingarkin and the Russian scientist said officials had pocketed the difference. They did not know the actual amounts involved, only that they involved "many millions" of dollars, as Shingarkin put it. A Minatom official said the ministry needed 45 days to answer any questions.

"Sixty percent of the money is returned to Minatom officials in cash, which they pocket," said Shingarkin, who now works for the Moscow office of Greenpeace. "I know, because in the past I have carried it."