Sergei Kiriyenko, head of the Russian Federal Nuclear Power Agency, who led a delegation to Tehran earlier this week, convinced the Iranian authorities to meet Russian nuclear-equipment export monopoly Atomstroyexport halfway in solving Bushehr's long-standing problems.
The highlight of Kiriyenko's visit was his meeting with Vice President Gholamreza Aghazadeh, head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization.
During a news conference after the talks, Iranian officials tried to put the issue in a political context. "The two countries have mustered the necessary political will to ensure the inauguration of the NPP on the planned date," Aghazadeh told journalists.
But Kiriyenko was more realistic: "Moscow sees no political obstacles to inaugurating the Bushehr plant on the agreed date, but Russia will work in Bushehr only as fast as is technologically possible."
In other words, Kiriyenko told Tehran that the sides needed to either remove all obstacles or postpone the launch of the plant.
He also pinpointed the main obstacles: a chronic shortage of funds and delays in the delivery of equipment, especially by other countries.
These are old problems. Tehran has long been making monthly payments by installments, frequently transferring part of the monthly payment to next month and later pretending that it is for the current month, leaving the previous month's payment in limbo.
As for deliveries of equipment from other countries, it was Iran's decision to order equipment from the West without bothering to obtain guarantees of compliance with contractual obligations. And now Western companies, fearing American sanctions, prefer to keep away from Bushehr.
Russia and Iran found a solution during the second round of talks held from the Russian side by Atomstroyexport President Sergei Shmatko. They agreed that parallel contracts should be signed to preclude delays in the delivery of equipment, and also agreed to streamline the system for making contractual payments.
Since stable financing is the main factor, Russia "does not see major risks of a failure to inaugurate the plant, although it is an ambitious project that will call for considerable efforts by both sides," Shmatko said.
The Bushehr project has long gone beyond the framework of bilateral relations and pure business.
The Paris-based newspaper Le Monde explains the problems hindering the drafting of a UN Security Council resolution on Iran by Russia's stubborn "refusal to approve punitive measures against Iran because they may affect its participation in the Bushehr project."
Citing foreign diplomats, the newspaper writes that Russian officials are "completely intractable, and refused to heed Western recommendations on denying entry visas to the heads of Iran's sensitive programs." According to Le Monde, Moscow might agree to prohibit financial transfers to Iranian bodies connected with nuclear and missile programs, but "refuses to freeze these bodies' foreign bank accounts."
The author of the article explains Russia's refusal by the fact that Iran's Atomic Energy Organization "has bank accounts in Russia in accordance with the contract for the construction of the Bushehr nuclear power plant." He writes: "[This is why] Russia has robbed the resolution drafted by the Europeans of its most important elements, and also reneged on the clauses it seemed prepared to accept in October."
Even if sanctions against Iran were introduced within weeks, "they would be symbolic at best," the author concludes.
Atomstroyexport officials brush off such statements as fantasy. They say deliveries of nuclear fuel will start in March of 2007, the nuclear power plant will be commissioned in September and start generating electricity in November.