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Russia losing patience with Iran over its nuclear stance

Moscow will delay the start-up of a reactor it's building for Tehran. Money is just one issue.

March 13, 2007|David Holley | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — Russia signaled sharp dissatisfaction Monday with Iran's defiant stance on nuclear issues, saying 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 company building Iran's first nuclear power plant, said the supply of fuel to the nearly completed Bushehr facility would not begin this month as planned because of unresolved disputes over 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, the United Nations' nuclear watchdog, has caused Russia to suffer "losses in relation to its foreign policy and image, but they insist on their line," the Itar-Tass agency quoted the unnamed official as saying.

"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 U.N. Security Council -- Britain, China, France, Russia and the U.S. -- have been considering a resolution aimed at tightening sanctions against Iran for its refusal to stop its uranium enrichment program. Tehran says the program is intended only to make fuel for civilian energy production; Washington charges that the effort is aimed at producing nuclear weapons.

Moscow has sought to continue working with Iran on the $1-billion Bushehr plant while urging it to cooperate with the IAEA to reassure the world that its nuclear program is peaceful.

But in recent weeks, negotiations over payment for Russia's work have turned acrimonious. Talks in Moscow last week ended without agreement. Further talks were scheduled for this week in Tehran.

A spokesman for Atomstroyexport was quoted by state-run Russian news agency RIA Novosti on Monday as saying the supply of nuclear fuel for Bushehr would not begin this month because Iran had refused to sign documents on resuming payments for the project. Russia says Iran has failed to make agreed-upon payments of $25 million a month. Iran says 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 company spokesman said.

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

"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," the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency quoted him as saying. Some Iranian leaders think that Russia is not a trusted partner and that the delays are the result of pressure from world powers, Jalali said.

Ivan Safranchuk, director of the Moscow office of the Washington-based Center for Defense Information, said Russia was "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.

"Iran has been playing games with the U.S., Europe and Russia for a long time now, trying to take advantage of their mutual differences, but Russia is now making it clear to Iran that there is a limit to such manipulation," Safranchuk said.

Kortunov said Moscow's tougher attitude toward Iran was also prompted by a desire to avoid further damage to Russian-U.S. relations, which have deteriorated in the last 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.

*

david.holley@latimes.com

Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko contributed to this report.

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