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Russia signals dissatisfaction with Iran's nuclear stance

MOSCOW -- Russia signaled sharp dissatisfaction yesterday with Iran's defiant stance on nuclear issues, declaring that the start-up of a Russian-built nuclear reactor will be delayed and warning that Moscow will not join Tehran "in anti-American games."

Atomstroyexport, the state-run Russian company building Iran's first nuclear power plant, announced that the supply of fuel to the nearly completed Bushehr facility will not begin this month as had been planned because of unresolved disputes over project financing. The scheduled September launch of the reactor will also be delayed, it said.

Meanwhile, an official described as "an insider" told the three main Russian news agencies that Tehran had abused its ties with Moscow on the nuclear issue.

Iran's defiance of the International Atomic Energy Agency has caused Russia to suffer "losses in relation to its foreign policy and image, but they insist on their line," the anonymous official said, as quoted by Itar-Tass.

"Iran with a nuclear bomb or a potential for its creation is impermissible for us," the official said. "We will not play with them in anti-American games. . . . The Iranians are abusing our constructive attitude and have done nothing to help us convince our colleagues of Tehran's consistency."

Andrei Kortunov, president of the New Eurasia Foundation, a Moscow think-tank, said the statement clearly was "an organized leak" designed to be "an unofficial official reprimand" to Iran.

"It is a serious public warning to Iran's leadership," Kortunov said. "This is a serious sign that Iran may eventually find itself in international isolation."

The five permanent members of the UN Security Council have been considering a new resolution aimed at tightening sanctions against Iran for its refusal to stop its uranium enrichment program. Tehran says the program is to make fuel for civilian energy production, but Washington charges that the effort is aimed at producing nuclear weapons.

Moscow has sought to continue its cooperation with Iran in construction of the $1 billion Bushehr plant while urging Tehran to cooperate with the IAEA to reassure the world community that its nuclear program is peaceful.

But in recent weeks, Moscow and Tehran have engaged in acrimonious negotiations over terms of payment for work at the Russian-built facility. Talks in Moscow last week ended without agreement. Further talks are scheduled in Tehran this week.

An Atomstroyexport spokesman quoted by the state-run Russian news agency RIA Novosti said yesterday that the supply of nuclear fuel for Bushehr will not begin this month because Iran has refused to sign documents on resumption of payments for the project. Russia claims that Iran has failed to make agreed-upon payments of $25 million per month, while Iran claims that it has met its financial obligations.

"Today, we are facing an unprecedented attitude on the part of the Iranian side to the Bushehr project, which was until recently considered the flagship of Russian-Iranian cooperation," the Atomstroyexport spokesman said.

In Tehran, Kazem Jalali, an Iranian lawmaker, sharply criticized delays in the project and said they may damage Iranian-Russian relations.

"Any procrastination and delay in construction and delivery of the Bushehr power plant can reverse the balance in favor of those not calling for ties with Russia," Jalali said, according to the Iranian news agency IRNA. He added that some Iranian leaders believe that Russia is not a trusted partner, the news agency said.

Ivan Safranchuk, director of the Moscow office of the Washington-based Center for Defense Information, said Russia "is taking advantage of the technical problems with Iran to send a political message."

"Iran is on the verge of severing relations with the IAEA, and Russia is clearly warning against such a dangerous step," Safranchuk said. "It is clear that no one -- even Russia -- will supply nuclear fuel to Iran once it breaks relations with the IAEA."

Kortunov said the toughening of Moscow's attitude toward Iran has also been prompted by concern to avoid further damage to Russian-US relations, which have deteriorated over the past few years. "Russia can't afford to spoil relations with the United States any more deeply, and doesn't intend to continue to irritate Washington over Iran," he said.