Russia defies US over Iran nuclear deal


Britain claimed yesterday Russia had pledged to suspend exports of nuclear fuel to Iran until Tehran met the concerns of the International Atomic Energy Agency. But Moscow appeared determined to press ahead in spite of the concerns of other governments, including the US.

Tony Blair, prime minister, told parliament Vladimir Putin, Russia's president, had given the assurances at last weekend's G8 summit in Evian. But Alexander Rumyantsev, Russia's atomic energy minister, said deliveries of uranium to Iran's Bushehr power plant would begin by next year, regardless of whether Tehran complied with US calls for stepped-up inspections of its nuclear programme.

Mr Rumyantsev, a said he expected to sign a final contract within two months, which would formalise Iran's obligation to return all spent nuclear fuel to Russia for reprocessing and storage.

The statement underlined Moscow's apparent resolve to proceed with the $1bn (885m, 610m) Bushehr contract. Mr Putin indicated at the weekend that Russian companies should not suffer "unscrupulous competition".

It contradicts an assurance a US official said Russia gave last month that it would not deliver nuclear fuel to Bushehr until Iran had signed the IAEA's "additional protocol" to broaden inspections in the country. A French official said Paris was also given the same assurance.

Moscow has been under growing US pressure to halt nuclear co-operation with Iran until it signs the protocol and Mr Putin has said he would extra safeguards.

In Madrid yesterday, Igor Ivanov, Russia's foreign minister, stressed there should be no linkage between the supply of fuel to Bushehr and signature of the additional protocol, adding Moscow was pushing for Tehran to comply in order.

However, in a sign there was scope for negotiation, Mr Rumyantsev said Iran had expressed a willingness to sign the protocol if other demands were met, including the lifting of US sanctions. He said the US may have been justified in imposing sanctions on Russian nuclear research institutes suspected of involvement in proliferation before he was appointed minister, but no such concerns now existed and he doubted any such allegations had related to supplies to Iran.

He said talks were under way between his ministry and the EU on restrictions that would otherwise limit Russia's ability to reprocess spent nuclear fuel from power plants it built in former Soviet states which will join the EU.

He added preparation of the contract with Iran on the return of spent fuel was subject to approval by Russia, and notably an ecological assessment.

The export of nuclear equipment and expertise represents an important source of revenue for Russia, estimated at $3bn this year.