NYT : Iran Receives Nuclear Fuel in Blow to U.S.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Iran Receives Nuclear Fuel in Blow to U.S.

By HELENE COOPER | December 18, 2007

WASHINGTON — The United States lost a years-long battle when Russia delivered nuclear fuel on Monday for an Iranian power plant that is at the center of an international dispute over Iran’s nuclear program. Iran, for its part, rejected the idea that the delivery might mean it no longer needed to do its own uranium enrichment to make fuel, citing work on a second power plant.

In announcing that it has delivered the first fuel shipment to the power plant at Bushehr in southern Iran, Russian officials said that the fuel would be under the control of the International Atomic Energy Agency while it is in Iran, and that the Iranian government had given guarantees that the fuel would be only be used for the power plant.

The Bush administration, for its part, took pains not to publicly criticize the Russian move, and said that the fuel delivery means Iran should suspend its nuclear enrichment program. “If the Iranians accept that uranium for a civilian nuclear power plant, then there’s no need for them to learn how to enrich,” President Bush told reporters on Monday.

“There is no doubt that Russia and the rest of the world want to keep Iran from getting a nuclear weapon,” a White House spokesman, Gordon Johndroe, said. “And today’s announcement provides one more avenue for the Iranians to make a strategic choice to suspend enrichment.”

But Iran said that it needed to enrich uranium for another new nuclear power plant in the south of the country. That announcement came through the Fars news service.

Gholamreza Aghazadeh, the head of Iran’s Atomic Organization, said that Iran needs to produce fuel for a second plant under construction. “We are building a 360-megawatt indigenous power plant in Darkhovin,” Mr. Aghazadeh said.

“The fuel for this plant needs to be produced by Natanz enrichment plant,” he added, according to the news agency.

Darkhovin is a city in the southern province of Khusestan, north of Bushehr, which is better known for its oil fields.

Bushehr and Darkhovin were both projects planned before the 1979 revolution, and abandoned later. It was not clear how much construction had been made at Darkhovin.

Privately, administration officials said that they had been hoping, with dwindling confidence, that Russia would continue to stall on delivering the fuel, in part to send a message to Iran that the United States and its European, Chinese and Russian allies were hanging tough in their attempts to punish Iran for refusing to suspend enrichment. “We for many years tried to stop it, and for the last year we’ve known there was no way to stop it, and that it was coming, and we held our breath on the timing,” a senior administration official said.

From the American standpoint, the timing of the Russian fuel’s delivery couldn’t have been worse, coming just two weeks after the release of a United States intelligence estimate that concluded that Iran stopped its nuclear weapons program in 2003. The National Intelligence Estimate also concluded that Tehran had not restarted its nuclear weapons program as of mid-2007, undercutting a central tenet of the Bush administration’s basis for maintaining international pressure against Iran.

While administration officials maintain that the intelligence estimate does not mean that the United States and its allies should ease up the pressure against Iran, the practical consequence of the report has been to embolden Iran that China and Russia, two of the countries with perhaps the smallest appetite for tough sanctions, will not agree to a new round of tough sanctions at the United Nations. Russia’s decision to deliver fuel to Bushehr further emboldens Iran, several administration officials and European diplomats said privately.

Nazila Fathi contributed reporting from Tehran and Michael Schwirtz from Moscow.