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Russia shifts towards pressure on Iran over nuclear inspections
June 4, 2003

Russia appeared ready on Wednesday to put pressure on Iran to agree to strict United Nations nuclear inspections by slowing down its nuclear assistance, although the Russian atomic energy minister denied Moscow had issued any ultimatum.

A top presidential advisor said Russia would pursue full cooperation with Iran's nuclear power projects only after the UN's nuclear watchdog certified that Tehran was not developing nuclear weapons.

"When the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) states that there are no nuclear military programmes in Iran, then it will be possible to restore normal cooperation, work by Russia with Iran in all spheres," said Andrei Illarionov, Russia's top representative at the Group of Eight group of leading industrialised nations.

The official appeared to be suggesting that the Bushehr power plant, Iran's first nuclear power station, which is being built by Russia, would not be brought to completion until the IAEA gave the green light.

Illarionov, who is also President Vladimir Putin's economic adviser, told a press conference that Iran should provide full access to UN nuclear inspectors to lay to rest international concerns about its nuclear programme.

But amid contradictory signals from the Russian government on the highly sensitive issue, Atomic Energy Minister Alexander Rumyantsev denied reports that Moscow would refuse to deliver nuclear fuel unless Tehran gave UN monitors full access.

"There is no link," Rumyantsev said, asked about a Russian press report that Moscow would only supply the fuel if Iran signed an additional protocol of the international nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) that would allow tougher inspections.

Iran has been urged to allow the IAEA to inspect suspect sites in the country as a confidence-building measure.

It has been accused by the United States of using an atomic energy programme as a cover for illicit development of nuclear weapons, a charge Iran vigorously denies.

The respected Vedemosti business daily on Wednesday quoted what it said was an informed source in the Russian nuclear industry as saying that Russia would deliver the fuel only if Iran signed the additional NPT protocol.

"There is no direct link between Iran's signature of the protocol and the delivery of the fuel but indirectly it exists," an unnamed official in the Russian atomic energy ministry also told Vedemosti.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Tuesday that Moscow wanted to make sure that inspectors from the IAEA closely monitored Iran's nuclear activities.

But Rumyantsev insisted cooperation with Iran's civilian nuclear programme was perfectly in line with the requirements of the UN nuclear watchdog.

"There is no other cooperation," he told a group of foreign journalists, referring to the US accusations.

The powerful nuclear industry lobby in Russia is thought to be determined to keep the lucrative Iranian power plant project going. Iran ordered the power station from Russia in 1994 at a cost of nearly 800 million dollars (675 million euros).

But the United States, which last year branded Iran along with North Korea and Saddam Hussein's Iraq in an "axis of evil", has been putting huge pressure on Russia to pull out of the Bushehr project.

The fuel would be sent to Iran once another document, a bilateral agreement on the reimportation of used nuclear fuel to Russia, had been signed, Rumyantsev said.

This agreement had been delayed but should be signed within the next four to six weeks, the minister said. The delay happened because of "technical reasons" related to new Russian laws requiring an environmental assessment of the accord.

The Bushehr reactor should be operational by the end of 2004 and the power station connected to the electricity grid in 2005, the minister added, denying there was any "slowdown" in the project in response to US pressure.

But Rumyantsev did concede that the US stance was affecting Russia's work in Iran.

"We are a civilised country. President Bush held out his hand to us. President Putin said we have to take into account (US concerns)," he said.

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