Iran Snubs Moscow in Nuclear Dispute

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki on Wednesday abruptly postponed a visit to Moscow amid apparent Iranian annoyance at Russian hints of a delay to the construction of the country's first nuclear power station.

Mottaki had been scheduled to hold talks with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow during a two-day visit starting Thursday. But a Foreign Ministry official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the visit had been canceled.

Iran's diplomatic snub came after Russian officials appeared to suggest that Moscow could postpone the completion of a nuclear power station in the southern city of Bushehr.

Experts say Moscow, which has refused to back tough European-proposed UN sanctions against Iran over its disputed nuclear program, could be using its $1 billion Bushehr contract as a lever of pressure on Tehran.

Alexei Malashenko, a Middle East expert at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said Iran would regard any foot-dragging by Russia on Bushehr as an unfriendly act amid the huge pressure on Tehran by the United States and its allies.

"This would be seen by Iran as a sign that Moscow values its relations with the West more than with Tehran," Malashenko said.

Sergei Shmatko, head of state-run Atomstroiexport, which is building the Bushehr plant, said earlier Wednesday that Russia would shortly assess the timetable for completing construction of Bushehr. Shmatko said work so far was on schedule. "At the present time, we have not registered any delays in the timetable for the atomic power station's construction," RIA-Novosti quoted him as saying.

The assessment of the Bushehr project to be conducted later this month "will determine the final timetable for its launch," Shmatko said.

In September, Russia agreed to ship fuel to Bushehr by March 2007 and launch the facility in September, adding to the concerns of the United States and others over Tehran's nuclear ambitions.

But on Tuesday an unidentified Russian nuclear industry official was quoted by news agencies as saying that Russia could postpone the timetable if Iran failed to meet unspecified commitments.

The official told Itar-Tass that one of the problems was that Iran had not adhered to a payment schedule.

Russia, which along with China has major commercial ties with Iran and has the right of veto as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, last week proposed major amendments weakening a European draft resolution that would impose sanctions on Iran.

"The amendments are aimed at supporting negotiations on the resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue, with there being no alternative to talks," Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Kislyak said Wednesday, Interfax reported.

But Moscow at the same time has shown growing impatience with the Iranian refusal to meet international demands for a suspension of its sensitive uranium enrichment activities.

Anton Khlopkov of the Moscow-based PIR Center said Russia was trying to avoid the path to sanctions by applying its own form of pressure.