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Russian officials did not say why they had decided to move ahead with loading fuel into the Bushehr plant now. But the move could have been triggered in part by Moscow’s desire show the Iranians it can act independently from Washington after its decision to support the fourth set of U.N. sanctions in June and its continued refusal to ship surface-to-air missile systems that it agreed to provide under a 2007 contract to sell the S-300s.

The sophisticated S-300 anti-aircraft missiles would significantly boost Iran’s ability to defend against airstrikes. Israel and the United States have strongly objected to the deal.

Russia has walked a fine line on Iran for years. One of six world powers leading international efforts to ensure Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon, it has strongly criticized the U.S. and the European Union for following up with separate sanctions after the latest U.N. penalties — which Moscow supported — were passed.

Iran’s semiofficial ISNA news agency quoted Vice President Ali Akbar Salehi, who also heads the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, as saying that the country had invited IAEA experts to watch the transfer of fuel, which was shipped about two years ago, into the Bushehr reactor.

“Fuel complexes are sealed (and being monitored by IAEA). Naturally, IAEA inspectors will be there to watch the unsealing,” ISNA quoted Salehi as saying.

Russia has said the Bushehr project has been closely supervised by the IAEA. But the U.N. watchdog has no monitoring authority at the plant beyond ensuring that its nuclear fuel is accounted for, and U.S. and EU officials have expressed safety concerns.

They note that Iran — leery of opening up its nuclear activities to outsiders — refuses to sign on to the Convention on Nuclear Safety, making it subject to international monitoring of its atomic safety standards.

“We expect Iran to meet established international norms and practices to ensure the safe operation of the reactor under full safeguards monitoring” by the IAEA, Crowley said.

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Jahn wrote from Vienna. Associated Press writer Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this story.