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17 Nov, 2009 11:00

ROAR: Russia delays startup of Iranian nuclear plant in Bushehr

ROAR: Russia delays startup of Iranian nuclear plant in Bushehr

Many analysts see political rather than technical reasons behind Russia’s decision to conduct more tests of equipment at the nuclear facility in Iran.

Russian Energy Minister Sergey Shmatko said on November 16 that the launch of the nuclear power plant in Bushehr would not take place this year as planned due to “technical reasons.” At the same time, the minister said that major results are expected in the construction of the $1 billion plant by the end of the year.

Shmatko also said that Russia “is committed to its obligations to Iran.” Moscow and Tehran “have no disagreements about the construction of the plant,” Vremya Novostey daily quoted him as saying.

Nuclear fuel deliveries for Bushehr were completed in January. The launch was expected by the end of 2009. But it has already been delayed several times for technical and financial reasons.

There has not been any reclamation from the Iranian side so far, the Russian media say. At the same time, many newspapers note that the chairman of the Iranian parliament’s national security and foreign policy committee Alaeddin Borujerdi described Russia’s decision to delay the launch as “unusual and hasty.”

Vremya Novostey daily said citing its sources in the Energy Ministry that “there has been no politics in the delay. Simply the specifics of the power-generating unit in Bushehr require more tests.”

The Energy Ministry and Russia’s state atomic energy corporation, Rosatom, say that the timetable of start-up operations on the plant, which has been coordinated with the Iranians, “does not contain exact time constraints, and putting the plant into operation will happen only after all the necessary technical conditions are observed,” the paper said.

“It should be noted that in October, sources in Rosatom said that the reactor could be launched by the end of the year, but putting the first power-generating unit into operation would happen no sooner than April 2010,” Vremya Novostey stressed. Specialists explain the delay by the need to thoroughly test equipment that had been delivered earlier by a German company, which is also used in the construction of the plant.

Vedomosti daily quotes Sergey Novikov, official representative of Rosatom, as saying that “the construction of the Bushehr nuclear plant has been completed.” However, the full cycle of equipment tests has not been finished yet, Novikov said.

Most analysts see political causes behind Russia’s decision. It is linked to “political aspirations to exert pressure on Iran rather than technical difficulties,” said Vladimir Yevseev of the Institute of World Economy and International Relations.

“The nuclear plant should have started operations some years ago, but different problems appeared frequently,” Yevseev commented on Politcom.ru website. “In fact, some problems could be explained,” he said.

First of all, a German company started the construction of the plant prior to the war between Iran and Iraq. Russian specialists had to adapt their equipment to what had been partly destroyed during the war, the analyst said.

This situation could really cause some technical problems, Yevseev said, but he added that they must have already been solved. “They said that the fuel deliveries are [usually] made six months before the launch of a reactor, however, the plant is still not working,” he said.

If this is true, after the fuel was delivered in January 2009, it would have been operational back in July, so Yevseev thinks the delay confirms “the political version. It seems that Russia, in doing so, has joined the international pressure on Iran in the nuclear program issue.”

Some analysts treated the news “as a Moscow concession to Washington,” Gazeta.ru website said. By freezing the project, Moscow “has abandoned the idea of neutrality and is now playing into the US’s hands in the Iranian nuclear issue,” Rajab Safarov, director of Modern Iran Studies Center, told the website.

The last of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s “statements made in Pittsburgh and Singapore, in which he confirmed the possibility of applying new sanctions against Iran, are basically very tough,” Safarov said.

Safarov believes that Russia has joined the “diplomacy of threats and pressure” against Tehran. This has been confirmed, in particular, by Moscow’s refusal to fulfill the promises on delivering the S-300 surface-to-air missile systems and by the last statement of Russian officials on Bushehr, the analyst said.

The US’s readiness to conclude a new treaty on strategic offensive arms reduction has become “the main motive that prompted Moscow to heed to Washington’s admonitions” regarding Iran, Gazeta.ru said.

Such policies may bring Moscow “short-term dividends,” but they will not compensate for “the damage to its image,” Safarov told the website. “Russia will cease to be treated as a reliable partner that does not link its contract commitments to external political circumstances,” the analyst added.

Safarov sees “a certain exchange between Moscow and Washington.” Russia is drifting to the positions of the Western coalition, he told Rosbalt news agency. “It seems that Russia is alienating Iran,” the analyst said.

“If this big country changes the status of the state that is friendly to Russia to the status of at least a neutral country, it is fraught with different consequences, which may amount to billions of dollars in money terms,” Safarov believes.

Fedor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of Russia in Global Affairs magazine, also thinks that Moscow’s decision to delay the launch of the plant will be treated as a political gesture in Iran itself and the West.

This delay may be considered as “an additional means of Russia’s pressure on Iran,” he told Vedomosti daily. But this measure is not necessary, he said, “because it demonstrates the unreliability of Russia as a supplier,” he said.

The Iran nuclear program was one of the main topics at the meeting between the Russian and US presidents in Singapore on November 15. Medvedev said that he was not “fully satisfied with the pace of negotiations” regarding this issue and stressed that "other options remain on the table.”

At the same time, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told journalists that Moscow’s position “remains unchanged: we believe there still is time and want to resolve the problem by political and diplomatic means.”

The Iranian side may harbor serious concerns after the launch of the plant have been delayed, some observers say. “Tehran had already announced the desire to reconsider the scheme it had approved earlier,” Vremya Novostey said. According to that plan, Iran should send its low-enriched uranium to Russia and France to produce nuclear fuel.

“Now Tehran is insisting that uranium should be sent to Turkey rather than to Russia,” the paper said. Iran has also “threatened to develop its own anti-aircraft missile systems if Moscow refuses to deliver the defensive S-300 systems,” the daily added.

However, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on November 17 that “there is no political link between the settlement of the Iran nuclear problem and the construction of the nuclear plant in Bushehr.”

Tehran has not backed out of the scheme of enriching its uranium in Russia either, Lavrov said. Within the next few days Iran “will officially inform of its final decision,” the minister added.

Sergey Borisov, RT