Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Big Bucks From Bushehr

Yulia Latynina, The Moscow Times:
Hard on the heels of the Bratislava summit, Russia signed a deal with Iran to provide nuclear fuel for the Bushehr nuclear power plant, which Russia has helped build. The announcement aroused concern in Washington, at the International Atomic Energy Agency and among Russian environmentalists. U.S. Senator John McCain went so far as to call for Russia's exclusion from this year's G8 summit.

The case against Russia helping Iran to develop its nuclear program is well known. For starters, it's hard to believe that Iran, one of the world's largest oil producers, needs nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. Moreover, fuel for the Bushehr plant will be shipped by rail to the Caspian Sea. Trains loaded with nuclear fuel would make a tempting target for terrorists in southern Russia. And the requirement that spent fuel be returned to Russia will hardly improve the environmental situation here at home.

Even if you believe that Iran has no intention of developing nuclear weapons, this doesn't alter the fact that the nuclear power plant is potentially the most powerful suicide bomb in the world.

For all these reasons, most analysts were perplexed by the deal. It seems reasonable to assume that by agreeing to provide nuclear fuel to Iran, Russia has provided nuclear weapons to Muslim fanatics, laid the groundwork for the seizure of nuclear material by terrorists in the Caucasus and turned its own countryside into a nuclear waste dump.

The question is why -- especially after President Vladimir Putin bent over backwards in Bratislava to ease U.S. concerns on the issue of nuclear safety, possibly in exchange for Washington's backing of the regime in Moscow. read more

Maybe the experts are stumped by the deal because they're asking the wrong questions. They're trying to understand it in geopolitical terms. But you could ask instead who's making money off Bushehr. The power plant at Bushehr is being built by the state-owned company Atomstroiexport. Until recently, the controlling stake in Atomstroiexport belonged to the well-known industrialist Kakha Bendukidze. After he was named Georgia's economy minister, however, the oversight arm of the presidential administration audited the company and discovered "a number of violations." The tax inspectors came next and slapped the company with a bill for 1 billion rubles ($35 million) in back taxes.

In October 2004, Bendukidze sold his 53.8 percent stake in Atomstroiexport to Gazprombank for 731 million rubles, or about $25 million -- not much for a company that experts predict could receive up to $20 billion in orders in the next few years. It may well be that if Bendukidze had refused to sell his stock, he might have lost the company anyway, just as Mikhail Khodorkovsky was stripped of Yuganskneftegaz.

There's a logic in all this. As long as Bendukidze controlled Atomstroiexport, the Kremlin refused to back the plan to supply Muslim fundamentalists with nuclear technology. As soon as the company was in the right hands, its profits went through the roof. And if the nuclear fuel deal destabilized the global geopolitical situation, so it goes. In other words, the deal was signed for purely commercial reasons.

Following the tragedy in Beslan, Putin hinted that the Islamist terrorists involved had backing from Western intelligence. Some people "want to tear off a big chunk of our country" because they "think that Russia, as one of the greatest nuclear powers in the world, is still a threat, and this threat has to be eliminated," Putin said.

It will be interesting to see who gets blamed if terrorists seize a train loaded with nuclear fuel. Probably the CIA again.

Yulia Latynina hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio.
An interesting theory.