WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration has taken the unusual step of providing Russian officials with U.S. intelligence on Iran in hopes of persuading them to drop Russia's project to build nuclear reactors in Iran.
U.S. officials said the written intelligence report shared with the Russians shows that Iran has a crash program to build nuclear weapons that would be accelerated by Russia's $1 billion contract to build up to four reactors in Iran.
The intelligence, the U.S. officials said, shows that Iran is importing equipment needed to build nuclear weapons, that it has sought to buy enriched uranium from former Soviet republics such as Kazakhstan, and that it is using many of the same smuggling techniques and routes that Iraq and Pakistan used in their efforts to build a nuclear bomb.
As an added inducement to get Russia to drop the project before a May 9 summit between President Clinton and President Boris N. Yeltsin in Moscow, the administration has offered Russia tens of millions of dollars for nuclear cooperation projects to compensate Russia if it cancels its $1 billion contract to build up to four reactors in Iran.
In interviews last week, senior administration officials disclosed that Secretary of State Warren Christopher told Foreign Minister Andrei V. Kozyrev of Russia at a recent meeting in Geneva that the United States would offer the money to the cash-starved Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy to help it build modern reactors in Russia and to clean up nuclear waste sites there. Some officials said such nuclear aid might exceed $100 million.
Defense Secretary William J. Perry said yesterday in Moscow that U.S. assistance to help Russia dismantle its nuclear weapons and convert defense plants to civilian use should not be cut off even if Russia builds the Iranian reactors because this aid to Russia advances U.S. security interests. Mr. Perry will meet with Russian government and military leaders today.
Officials in Washington said the carrot offered by Mr. Christopher was intended to assure the Atomic Energy Ministry that there will be plenty of work for its 1 million employees if Russia scraps the contract it signed in January to build reactors in Bushehr, Iran, near the Persian Gulf.
As yet another inducement, the administration has indicated to Russian officials that it might try to win Russia part of the work to build two light-water reactors, valued at $2 billion each, that an American-led international consortium has promised North Korea.
Mr. Christopher told Mr. Kozyrev that the United States fears that the expertise, technology and fissionable material that Iran gains from the Russian-built reactors will greatly speed Iran's program to develop nuclear weapons, the officials said. The Pentagon has estimated that Iran will be able to build an atomic bomb in five to 10 years.
An intelligence official who spoke on condition of anonymity said it was unusual for Washington to share such sensitive information with Moscow. "We used to only share information when we wanted to accuse them of some type of violation," the official said. "Now we're sharing information so we can cooperate."
The Clinton administration has made stopping the reactor project a priority in its dealings with Russia, asserting that the Middle East would be endangered if Iran had nuclear weapons.