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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia Hardens Stance Toward Iran

Prospects of Russian-Iranian nuclear cooperation dimmed over the weekend as President Vladimir Putin questioned Tehran's reluctance to agree to more comprehensive UN inspections and the nuclear power minister said a key nuclear agreement with Iran would not be signed any time soon.

Putin said he sees no good reason why Iran should not sign an additional protocol to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty that would allow the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency to conduct thorough inspections of suspected nuclear sites without notice.

"If Iran is not striving to develop nuclear weapons, it has nothing to hide. I see no grounds for refusing to sign these additional protocols," Putin said Saturday at a meeting with U.S. reporters ahead of a summit with U.S. President George W. Bush at Camp David.

Putin also said Russian intelligence has information that West European and U.S. companies "are cooperating with Iran directly in the atomic sphere."

IAEA's board of directors convened earlier this month to again urge Iran to sign the nuclear protocol and, more important, give Tehran until the end of October to prove that it is not pursing a covert nuclear weapons program. If Iran fails to do so, the IAEA may refer the issue to the UN Security Council, which could impose sanctions on the country.

Moscow has repeatedly urged Tehran to sign the protocol and at the same time insisted that Russia will continue to build a nuclear reactor in Bushehr even if Iran does not sign the document. But Moscow also has made it clear that it will not complete the reactor unless Tehran signs an agreement to return spent reactor fuel.

Nuclear Power Minister Alexander Rumyantsev acknowledged Friday that the agreement was nowhere close to being signed, a development that could delay the scheduled 2005 completion of the Bushehr reactor.

"Our talks could last a long time," Rumyantsev told reporters after talks with visiting U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham.

Russian and Iranian officials had promised that the agreement would be signed by October. However, the Nuclear Power Ministry said earlier last week that the signing was being delayed by Iranian demands that Russia pay for the spent fuel, contrary to existing international practice.

Addressing a nonproliferation conference Friday, Rumyantsev said he believed the Iranians made the unusual demand because they have yet to "learn" the intricate standards of nuclear cooperation, rather than because they would like to keep spent fuel that could be used to make nuclear bombs. "The delay is of a learning nature rather than a bureaucratic one," Rumyantsev said.

He hinted that Tehran may have put the agreement on the backburner to focus instead on how to respond to the IAEA's October deadline.

An Iranian diplomat repeated Tehran's denials that the country was seeking to develop nuclear arms. "We say no to atomic bombs and weapons of mass destruction and yes to peaceful atomic technology and to peaceful atomic research and development," Akham Khoseini said at the conference.

Meanwhile, Rumyantsev and Abraham on Friday signed an agreement to continue projects under the Nuclear Cities Initiative, including a new $9 million partnership to provide the city of Snezhinsk with state-of-the-art cancer diagnosis imaging equipment.

Abraham told the nonproliferation conference that the U.S. Energy Department and the Nuclear Power Ministry would work together with the IAEA to return highly enriched uranium from a research reactor in Romania to Russia to burn off weapons-grade material.

The two-day nonproliferation conference, which ended Saturday, drew more than 300 experts from 36 countries.