IN March 1995, the Clinton administration launched a
high-profile diplomatic offensive to pressure Russia to cancel an
$800 million sale to Iran of a nuclear-power reactor.
Senior officials warned the deal could advance the Islamic
republic's alleged atomic-weapons development efforts. Russia
responded with angry denials and refused to abandon the sale. As
congressional calls for sanctions against Moscow fueled the
dispute, the White House vowed that derailing would be it a major
A year later, the reactor project remains on track. But it has
all but disappeared from Washington's pronouncements on differences
with Moscow. The reason: a realization that by focusing attention
on its failure to halt the deal, the administration could be forced
to take punitive action against Russia that could seriously
jeopardize overall relations, including cooperation on nuclear
Accordingly, officials say, the administration has deliberately
taken the spotlight off the issue while continuing to pursue it
behind the scenes amid scant hope that it might still persuade
Russia to drop the project.
"We were in danger of rhetorically painting ourselves into a
corner," says one official. "There was a realization that the steps
we could take that might result in stopping this deal ... might
endanger other aspects of our relations with Russia that were not
Asserts another official: "We continue to oppose this reactor
sale. It is an extremely ... intensive effort" being handled
directly by President Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, and
Secretary of State Warren Christopher. But, he acknowledges,
success is "not predictable."
New world compromise
The issue underscores the difficult tradeoffs the administration
must make in maintaining smooth relations with the world's No. 2
nuclear power. It also illustrates the limits of Washington's
policy of isolating Iran. While the administration last year banned
American firms from doing business with Tehran, it has failed to
persuade other governments to cut economic ties with a regime it
says nurtures terrorism, aspires to regional hegemony, and seeks
weapons of mass destruction.
Under a January 1995 accord, Russia agreed to complete
construction of a nuclear-power reactor at Bushehr, on Iran's Gulf
coast, that the German firm, Seimens, abandoned after the 1979
overthrow of the late Shah Reza Pahlavi.
Russia signed a separate $30 million contract to provide nuclear
fuel to Bushehr and take back the spent fuel.
News reports and officials say the project is moving ahead
despite temporary problems Iran has had in meeting payment
deadlines. They say Russian technicians completed design
studies in January and have begun dismantling old structures to
make way for new construction.
In urging Russia to cancel the deal, the United States contended
that knowledge derived by Iran from operating the plant could be
used to advance its alleged clandestine effort to develop nuclear
weaponry. The threat from such weaponry would extend to Russia, it
Russia defended the sale, saying that Iran is obliged to observe
international safeguards as a signatory of the Nuclear
Non-Proliferation Treaty. …