Tuesday, February 20, 2007

MOSCOW — The opening of a Russian-built nuclear power plant in Iran could be delayed because Iran has fallen behind in payments, Russian officials said yesterday.

A top Iranian nuclear official swiftly denied that payments had been disrupted, in the latest dispute surrounding the deal at the heart of the two countries’ nuclear cooperation.

Under an agreement reached last year, Russia was to ship nuclear fuel to Bushehr — Iran’s first nuclear plant — by next month and open the facility in September, with electricity generation to start by November.

Iran agreed in a separate deal to return to Russia all spent fuel from the plant in southern Iran for reprocessing. The move was 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 press.

He said the Iranians blamed the delay on the need to switch payments from dollars to euros.

“The launch schedule definitely could be affected,” said Sergei Novikov, a spokesman for Russia’s nuclear power agency.

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

“Iran has had no delay whatsoever in making payments for the Bushehr nuclear power plant,” Mr. Saeedi was quoted as saying by the Islamic Republic News Agency.

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

Although a delay in opening Bushehr is likely to anger Iran, Russia gave no indication that it was maneuvering to scrap the deal, which has provoked Western criticism.

Russia emphasizes that Iran has the right to a peaceful nuclear energy program, and President Vladimir Putin and other officials have said that the Bushehr contract would be honored.

Mr. Putin’s increasingly defiant posture toward the United States makes it unlikely that the Kremlin would opt out of the agreement.

“Russia remains firmly committed to the Bushehr deal, and Putin’s recent statements make a change in attitude highly improbable,” said Yevgeny Volk, head of the Heritage Foundation’s Moscow office.

In December, Russia supported a U.N. Security Council resolution imposing limited sanctions against Iran over its refusal to stop uranium enrichment, but only after a proposal imposing restrictions on the Bushehr plant was dropped.

The United States and some allies say Iran’s nuclear program is aimed at developing nuclear weapons. Iran maintains it is intended only to generate electricity.

Word of the Bushehr delay surfaced as Iran hurriedly arranged talks today with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) just ahead of the U.N. nuclear watchdog’s report that could expose Tehran to even broader sanctions over its disputed nuclear program.

Iran’s top security official, Ali Larijani, will meet with IAEA director Mohamed ElBaradei, who in a report to the Security Council later this week is expected to confirm that Tehran has defied a 60-day council deadline to stop enriching uranium.

Separately, Mr. ElBaradei said in a published interview Iran would be able to install 3,000 centrifuges as the basis for “industrial-scale” enrichment in six to 12 months.

Gholamreza Aghazadeh, who heads Iran’s nuclear programs, is pushing for an even earlier completion date, according to a report by diplomats who visited Iran two weeks ago.

Mr. ElBaradei told the London-based Financial Times newspaper that it was too late for the world to deny Iran enrichment know-how, meaning that only diplomatic compromise, not sanctions, could resolve the crisis.

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