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Beijing is negotiating with Teheran to build 20 nuclear power stations over the next decade, the exiled Iranian writer Amir Taheri wrote last week, in a column published in the New York Post that examined an arms scramble by Middle Eastern states seeking to join the nuclear club.
"With no international control over what happens to the spent fuel generated by those stations, Iran could end up having enough material to make hundreds of bombs," he warned.
Responding to the dire scenario etched out by Taheri, Prof. Raymond Tanter, president of the Washington-based Iran Policy Committee, told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday that "there is some evidence to substantiate Taheri's claim about Chinese-Iranian cooperation to set up nuclear plants in Iran."
Tanter noted that late in January, an official Iranian state news agency, the Islamic Republic News Agency "reported a meeting between the Chinese ambassador to Teheran and the Iranian Energy Commission head to set up 20 nuclear power plants."
"Such public acknowledgment suggests that the Chinese need for energy and the Iranian desire for nuclear technology trump Washington's efforts to persuade Beijing to stand down on nuclear cooperation with Teheran," Tanter added.
Sino-Iranian cooperation over such a project creates the risk that weapons-grade plutonium could be extracted from new Chinese-made plants, and used by Iran to construct plutonium-based nuclear weapons, he said.
This would allow Iran to pursue "a complementary path to obtaining the bomb," in addition to its uranium enrichment program.
"A second threat posed by the new plants is that Teheran could use them as cover for transfer of sensitive technology that would normally be prohibited. And a third threat is that knowledge gained by Iranian scientists working at such plants would further the regime's nuclear weapons program," he added.
Still, the picture described in Taheri's column was a worst-case-scenario in which there was no international monitoring of the spent fuel generated from the plants, Tanter said.
"One would have to assume that Washington is engaging Beijing in discussions to persuade China to require international control over spent nuclear fuel generated by such plants, if China goes ahead with plans to set up them up in Iran," he argued.
And it was precisely in these kinds of talks with the US that China was hoping to gain leverage, according to Prof. Yitzhak Shichor, of the University of Haifa's Department of Asian Studies. Shichor said he believed talk of Chinese construction of power plants were part of the wider Chinese-US struggle, rather than a realistic scenario.
"These claims look exaggerated to me," he said. "China cannot produce 20 of these type of nuclear power plants. I think this is part of a much larger political game, or a part of China's struggle with the US, which is generally tied in some way or another to arming Taiwan," Shichor said.
"The Chinese are dissatisfied with American conduct over Taiwan. They will respond through Iran. The main thing is to upset Washington," he added.
Emily Landau, director of the Arms Control and Regional Security Program at Tel Aviv University's Institute for National Security Studies, said she had not come across mention of the "Chinese connection [to nuclear power plant construction] and definitely not with the degree of assertion of Taheri."
She added, however, that Iranian statements had been released in the past talking about "plans for building quite a few nuclear power stations over the next 10 years. And usually these are taken to mean that they are trying to create legitimacy for their uranium enrichment activity."
While Iran claims its nuclear program is for civilian use, it still does not have anywhere to use the nuclear fuel it is creating, and this is where the construction of nuclear power plants could come in, Landau said.
Tanter recalled that "Beijing's cooperation with Teheran in the nuclear field goes back to 1984. China started training Iranian nuclear technicians under a secret nuclear cooperation agreement, and Beijing also helped construct Teheran's Uranium Conversion Facility at Isfahan, Iran."
By April 2009, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claimed that the Iranian regime was operating some 7,000 centrifuges at the Isfahan uranium enrichment facility, Tanter added.