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Reps. Howard Berman (D-CA) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) have suggested that now is not the right time for the United States to sign a nuclear deal with Russia.
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Russia has helped Iran develop a nuclear reactor in the city of Bushehr. The Russian reads: “You are responsible for your safety and the safety of surrounding individuals.”

Lawmakers Concerned Over U.S.-Russia Nuke Deal

The Obama administration on May 10 resubmitted to Congress a nuclear cooperation agreement with Russia that allows the exchange of nuclear energy technology and material between the two nations. Yet, in the wake of its submission, the so-called 123 agreement has raised a series of questions about Moscow’s role in supporting Iran’s nuclear program.

The agreement, named after a section of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, allows spent nuclear fuel, currently under U.S. control, to be stored in Russia. It also allows the United States and Russia to jointly design and market the next-generation nuclear power reactor. The agreement is potentially worth tens of billions of dollars to Russia.

In 2008, President George W. Bush first submitted the agreement to Congress, but ultimately withdrew it in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Georgia. In a May 2010 statement, President Obama said that factor “need no longer be considered an obstacle to proceeding.”

The agreement takes effect unless lawmakers pass a resolution of disapproval within 90 legislative days.

Lawmakers Voice Concern About Agreement

In recent weeks, members of Congress from both sides of the aisle have raised concerns about the agreement, citing Russia’s unwillingness to support crippling sanctions on Iran at the U.N. Security Council. Russia did join the Council’s other permanent members in submitting a draft Iran sanctions resolution. Although this is a step in the right direction, it has not allayed these concerns. The agreement among the five permanent members failed to preserve many of the actions that the United States had hoped the Council would endorse.

“At a time when Iran is actively seeking to develop a nuclear weapons capability, establishing new nuclear cooperation agreements with other nations is far from the most critical nonproliferation issue,” said Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA), who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “Rather, the international community, especially all members of the U.N. Security Council, should be focusing their efforts on meaningful action to prevent Iran from obtaining weapons that could have a devastating impact.”

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), ranking member of the committee, expressed similar sentiments. “This agreement is sending the wrong message, at the wrong time, to the wrong actors,” she said. “It is rewarding Russia for its ongoing efforts to assist Iranian proliferation and prevent tough U.N. sanctions on Iran.” BACK TO TOP

The Russia-Iran Alliance: A History of Cooperation

The potential enactment of the 123 agreement would follow years of Russian arms sales to Iran, which Moscow has further facilitated by first opposing and then watering down U.S. efforts to impose U.N. sanctions on Iran.

Russia has long been Iran’s largest conventional arms supplier—selling it fighter jets, tanks and long-range missiles. Perhaps more notably, Moscow has partnered with Tehran to develop sensitive nuclear technology, including a light-water reactor in the southern Iranian city of Bushehr. Russia first agreed to help Iran construct the reactor in 1995; a Russian official has said it will begin operating in August.

Furthermore, Russia has signed an agreement with Iran to provide it with the advanced S-300 surface-to-air missile system. This truck-mounted system can shoot down missiles or aircraft up to 90 miles away.

The United States has strongly urged Russia to scrap the deal. Moscow has refused, but has not yet delivered the system.

“We’ve made it very clear to the Russians that that would have a very significant impact on our bilateral relations,” said Gary Samore, the White House coordinator for arms control, weapons of mass destruction, proliferation and terrorism, on May 11. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov responded by saying that Russia needed “no advice from across the ocean” about the sale of the S-300s.

At the same time, Russia repeatedly rebuffed U.S. efforts to gain support for a new sanctions resolution at the U.N. Security Council. For months, the Obama administration has appealed to Russia to support such a step, noting that Moscow’s considerable investments in Iran harbor the potential to have a significant impact on the regime. Yet, Russia actively tried to block efforts by America and its allies. Russia has finally come on board, but not before watering down the resolution. Among other things, Russian pressure led to the removal of anti-aircraft missiles from the list of military items banned from export to Iran.

Moreover, Russia has warned Western nations not to impose any unilateral sanctions on Iran without the Council’s approval.

Countries facing Security Council sanctions “cannot under any circumstances be the subject of one-sided sanctions imposed by one or other government bypassing the Security Council,” Lavrov said on May 13.

More recently, Russia has also provided robust support to Syria, a key Iranian ally, and met with a leader of the Iranian-backed terrorist group Hamas. On May 14, Russia said that it had signed a deal to sell Syria warplanes, anti-tank weapons and air defense systems. Russia is set to provide Damascus with MiG-29 fighters, truck-mounted Pantsir short-range surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft artillery systems.

The announcement of the weapons deal comes one week after Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was in Syria to oversee talks on Russia’s possible assistance in building a nuclear power plant in Syria. While in Syria, Medvedev also met with Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal.