Lawmakers Voice Concerns on US-Russia Nuclear Deal

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13 June 2008

Democrats and Republicans in Congress have voiced concerns to a Bush administration arms control official about a U.S. - Russia civilian nuclear cooperation deal. VOA's Dan Robinson report from Capitol Hill, President Bush sent formal notification of the deal in May, giving Congress 90 days within which to block the deal, and lawmakers are concerned the agreement might undermine efforts to limit Iran's nuclear program.

Amid disagreements with Russia over such issues as a European missile shield and Russia's role in Iran, the Bush administration is telling Congress the deal will help counter nuclear proliferation, help long-term U.S. energy needs, and create a climate for greater U.S.-Russian nuclear energy cooperation and trade.

These and other positive points formed the basis of Acting Undersecretary of State John Rood's testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Both countries, said Rood, agree on diplomatic efforts to ensure Iran does not obtain nuclear weapons, and the need for Iran to suspend sensitive activities under U.N. Security Council resolutions.

The Bush administration is pursuing a dual track strategy combining pressure on Iran with negotiations and incentives. At the same time, President Bush continues to stress, as he did during a visit to Europe, that military options remain on the table.

Lawmakers are wary about committing to an agreement with Russia while questions remain about Russian-Iranian cooperation.

Questions focused on what Russia has done and will do to help the United States and partners break the standoff with Iran over its uranium enrichment activities.

California Democratic Congresswoman Barbara Lee asked Rood about President Bush's latest remark on military options.

Lee: "To continue to say, but I am always going to have the military option should I need it, sort of puts the stain on the diplomatic option as being a first choice."

Rood: "Well, I think our view on that is that we cannot take the military option out of your tool kit. That will always remain an option and it should not only for this president but any future president will always, we think, retain this option."

Rood's statement that Russian steps regarding Iran's Bushehr nuclear site, including an agreement to take back spent nuclear fuel, did not impress proliferation expert Henry Sokolski.

"You can make many, many bombs worth of material from Bushehr, and seize that material for chemical reprocessing, and have a bomb in about 10 days," he said. "You would have lots of good material."

Sokolski says the U.S. should insist on suspension of operations at Bushehr, saying Washington has no assurance Iran will not divert fresh or spent fuel to make fuel for nuclear weapons at its declared nuclear plants.

Robert Einhorn of the Center for Strategic and International Studies believes the Russian steps regarding Bushehr, and Moscow's cooperation on U.N. resolutions are positive results of the U.S.-Russia deal, but adds the U.S. needs to continue to exercise leverage with Moscow.

"I think it is important to try to incentivize Russia to be more helpful in general, diplomatically and otherwise, to prevent Iran from acquiring an enrichment program, and perhaps the Congress would decide to require the president to report annually on the extent to which Russia is being supportive of efforts inside the Security Council and outside the Security Council to pressure Iran to suspend its enrichment program," said Einhorn.

"We in Congress can insist that any implementation of the 123 agreement [refers to Section 123 of U.S. Atomic Energy Act] be made with technology that will not produce more material that can be turned into bombs, namely plutonium," said Congressman Dana Rorhabacher, a California Republican. "We have that technological alternative. If we act upon it legislatively, this could turn out to be a very positive thing for us."

Lawmaker's comments made clear there is substantial concern about proceeding before a new U.S. president takes office in early 2009.

Republican Joe Wilson and Democrat David Scott.

Wilson: "Wouldn't it be better to wait six months or even a year to see if assurances are actually implemented, what would be the down side to waiting a reasonable period of time?"

Scott: "I am very much concerned when we haven't had good experience with Russia cooperating before and I am just wary of giving the store to them when all the evidence [indicates] that I think our kindness will be taken advantage of just as it has been done in the past."

Among the questions lawmakers will have to answer, says House Foreign Affairs chairman Howard Berman,a Democrat from California, is whether the U.S. will have more leverage over Russian polices and behavior toward Iran by implementing the agreement, or by delaying it, or insisting presidential certifications regarding Russian behavior.