A spokesman for Russia’s atomic energy ministry (Minatom) has denied claims that Russia would not supply nuclear fuel for Bushehr unless Iran agrees to sign the IAEA additional protocol to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The only document that was “key” to the deal was an additional document to a bilateral agreement, which would “regulate the order of returning spent nuclear fuel to Russia.” Russian atomic energy minister Alexander Rumyantsev said he expected the fuel supply agreement to be signed within two months, and supplies are expected to commence this summer. “There is no link,” he said, between nuclear facilities inspections and the fuel contract, which is estimated to be worth around $1 billion. He added that construction of Bushehr should be completed in the middle of 2005, and it would reach “full commercial capacity” later in that year.

Earlier, after the recent Group of Eight summit in Evian, UK prime minister Tony Blair told parliament that Russian president Vladimir Putin had given assurances that Russia would not supply Iran with nuclear fuel until it signed up to the additional protocol. In the USA, undersecretary for arms control John Bolton said that Blair’s remarks were evidence that Russia shared US concerns. “It is not too late to halt and reverse Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons,” Mr Bolton told the House of Representatives Committee on International Relations.

But a spokesman for the Russian foreign ministry also confirmed Minatom’s position. Alexander Yakovenko said: “We will supply nuclear fuel for Iran’s Bushehr nuclear power plant even if Iran does not sign a protocol on additional guarantees with the IAEA.” However, he added that Russia did want Iran to sign up to the additional protocol. “Russia has actively worked on the development of these protocols and believes that their signature will significantly help in non- proliferation issues.” The additional protocol would give IAEA inspectors access to any nuclear facility. Under its present commitments, Iran is only obliged to allow inspections at the Bushehr plant.

Since the end of the war in Iraq, the US administration has begun to reassess its policy towards Iran. At the end of May defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld was reported to be spearheading efforts to make “regime change” the official US policy towards Iran. The way in which Iran handles the current dispute over Bushehr and other nuclear facilities ­ in particular the gas centrifuge enrichment plant under construction at Natanz (see NEI March 2003, p3) ­ is likely to play a major part in determining US policy towards Iran.