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Russia says Iran late in payment on power plant

MOSCOW -- The launch of a Russian-built nuclear power plant in Iran could be delayed because Iran has fallen behind in payments, Russian officials said yesterday . Top Iranian officials swiftly denied that payments had been disrupted, in the latest dispute surrounding the deal at the heart of the two countries' nuclear cooperation.

Last year, Russia agreed to ship nuclear fuel to Bushehr -- Iran's first nuclear plant -- by March 2007 and launch the facility in September, with electricity generation to start by November. Under a separate deal, Iran agreed to return to Russia all spent fuel from the plant in southern Iran for reprocessing -- a move intended to assuage global concerns that the fuel could be diverted to make nuclear weapons. Iran broke the schedule of payments this year under the $1 billion contract, said a Russian official, who asked not be named because he was not authorized to speak to the media. He said the Iranians blamed the delay on the need to switch payments from dollars to euros.

"The launch schedule definitely could be affected," Sergei Novikov, a spokesman for Russia's nuclear power agency, told the Associated Press.

But Mohammad Saeedi, the deputy head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, denied that Iran had been late in making payments.

"Iran has had no delay whatsoever in making payments for the Bushehr nuclear power plant to the Russian . . . company," Saeedi was quoted as saying by the news agency, IRNA.

Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former Iranian president who now heads a powerful clerical body called the Expediency Council, hinted that Russia was buckling under international pressure.

"We expect our friends [Russia] to prevent such attempts," IRNA quoted Rafsanjani as saying.

The dispute came amid persistent diplomatic efforts to persuade Iran to halt uranium enrichment in order to allay international fears that it could be seeking nuclear weapons.

But while a delay in launching Bushehr is likely to anger Iran, there was no indication that Russia could be maneuvering to scrap the deal, which has provoked Western criticism. Russia emphasizes that Iran has the right to a peaceful nuclear energy program.