Iran claims deal on N-plant but Russia denies

(Iranmania) Iran said it had struck a deal with Russia on a timetable for the start-up of the Islamic state's first nuclear power plant, but an official in Moscow said negotiations with Tehran were still under way, Reuters reported.

Iranian chief nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani was quoted by the state broadcaster as saying "good agreements" had been reached with Moscow for the inauguration of the Russian-built Bushehr plant, without giving details on when it might happen.

The timing of the power station's launch is significant as it is viewed by the United States as an important element in a nuclear drive which the West suspects is a front for developing atomic weapons. Iran says the programme is entirely peaceful.

In Moscow, the contractor building the plant in south-western Iran said talks were not yet finished.

"The negotiations are still under way and we do not yet have results from that so I am not confirming this information," said Irina Yesipova, a spokeswoman for Atomstroiexport.

Russia has repeatedly delayed the Bushehr plant which under a previously announced schedule was due to be started up in September 2007. A Russian sub-contractor has since said there is no chance of it happening before autumn 2008.

Moscow has traditionally been seen as Tehran's closest big-power ally but the delays to Bushehr have chilled relations.

"For the inauguration of the Bushehr nuclear power plant, we have reached good agreements with Russia," Larijani was quoted as saying by the Web site of state broadcaster IRIB.

"In these agreements, the timetable for the on-time provision of nuclear fuel and the inauguration of this plant has been specified," he said in the Iranian city of Qom.

Moscow says there is no evidence that Tehran has the capability to make nuclear weapons, but ties have been strained by what Russian officials say are mlns of dollars in missed payments for Bushehr.

Iranian officials say they have made the proper payments and that Moscow is delaying due to pressure from the West.

Russian nuclear officials say that nuclear fuel would have to be sent to Bushehr, a project initiated by Iran in the country's southwest in the 1970s, at least six months before the reactors start.

Analysts have speculated that Moscow could be adapting its policy towards Tehran or that the Kremlin is using Bushehr as a bargaining chip in a wider diplomatic game.

But Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said last week he believed Russia was committed to finishing work as planned on the Bushehr power station.

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