Iran welcomes Russian nuclear shipment

( AP ) - Iran on Wednesday touted this week's delivery by Russia of fuel for its first nuclear reactor as a step in strengthening ties between the two countries and a sign of Moscow's confidence that Iran's nuclear program is peaceful.

The shipment of the nuclear fuel, which arrived at Iran's Bushehr power plant on Monday paved the way for the long-delayed startup of the 1,000-megawatt light-water reactor in 2008.

Iran is hoping the shipment signals Russian willingness to prevent the United Nations from imposing new sanctions against it over Tehran's refusal to halt uranium enrichment, as sought by Washington. Russia is one of the five veto-wielding permanent members of the U.N. Security Council.

"With nuclear fuel shipped to Bushehr, we are going to see a new approach in deepening strategic relations with Russia in all fields in the future," Mohammad Saeedi, deputy head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran told the official IRNA news agency.The U.S. on Monday said it supports Russia providing enriched uranium to Iran as long as Moscow retrieves the used reactor fuel for reprocessing, as stipulated in an agreement between Russia and Iran.

But in the past, Washington has tried to dissuade Russia from delivering the fuel, relenting in its campaign earlier this year in order to win Moscow's support for U.N. sanctions against Iran.

Both the U.S. and Russia now say that with the shipment, the Iranians would no longer have any reason to enrich uranium which could then be used to build a nuclear weapon. Russia has said it sees no evidence Iran is seeking nuclear weapons but also says Iran should abide by U.N. demands.

A U.S. intelligence assessment earlier this month concluded Iran had stopped its nuclear weapons program in late 2003 and had not resumed it since. Tehran says it never had a weapons program.

Nevertheless, the U.S. and its allies are negotiating with Russia and China over a new sanctions resolution to punish Iran for its refusal to halt uranium enrichment, a process that can be used either to produce nuclear fuel or a warhead. But Russia and China have so far been reluctant.

The U.N. has already imposed two rounds of limited sanctions on Iran for refusing to suspend enrichment.

Iran insists it will continue its uranium enrichment activities at its facility in the central city of Natanz to provide fuel for another light-water 360-megawatt nuclear reactor being built in the southwestern town of Darkhovin.

Iran announced Monday it had started construction on the Darkhovin reactor using local technology, in contrast to Bushehr which was built with Russian help. Tehran says the enrichment program is part of an effort to generate electricity, but the United States fears it will lead to weapons development.

Saeedi said the shipment of nuclear fuel was made possible after a report last month by the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, said Iran had been truthful about its past uranium enrichment activities.

According to Saeedi, the date for shipment of nuclear fuel to Iran was finalized during a landmark visit to Iran by Russian President Vladimir Putin in October.

"Currently, 700 (Iranian) technicians are being trained in Russia in order to prepare to run the Bushehr nuclear power plant," Saeedi said.

Iran's state media said Russia's shipment "proved that Iran's nuclear activities are peaceful."

"It also shows that Iran and Russia are determined to continue their nuclear cooperation despite U.S. opposition," state television said in a commentary late Wednesday.

Last month, Iran announced it now has 3,000 uranium-enriching centrifuges fully operating at Natanz. The IAEA confirmed the Iranian announcement.

Iran says it plans to expand its enrichment program to up to 54,000 centrifuges at Natanz, insisting it is fully within its rights under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to pursue enrichment to produce fuel.

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