After years of delay, Russia announced Monday that it had delivered its first shipment of nuclear fuel to a reactor in southern Iran, a move Washington had long tried to delay to pressure Tehran not to pursue its own enrichment program.
Delivery of the nuclear fuel rods will ensure that the $1-billion power plant being built by Russia's state-owned Atomstroyexport in the port city of Bushehr will be up and running by next year, Gholamreza Aghazadeh, chief of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, told state television.
He cast Russia's decision as evidence that Iran had convinced other countries that it was pursuing nuclear power only for peaceful purposes.
The United States and its allies suspect Iran of trying to produce fuel for a nuclear weapon, and the U.N. Security Council has twice imposed sanctions on the country because of its enrichment program. A new U.S. intelligence report released two weeks ago said Iran had frozen its weapons program in 2003.
But President Bush says Iran remains a threat because it continues to enrich uranium. At lower levels of enrichment, the fuel can be used to generate electricity; at higher levels it can be used to make a bomb. The Bush administration had pressed Russia to withhold further assistance to the Bushehr project, hoping that would signal international concern about Tehran's enrichment efforts.
U.S. officials said Monday that Russia's decision showed that Iran did not need to pursue its own program.
At an appearance in northern Virginia, Bush said that "if the Russians are willing to do that -- which I support -- then the Iranians do not need to learn how to enrich. If the Iranians accept that uranium for a civilian nuclear power plant, then there's no need for them to learn how to enrich."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said after a meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris that Iran should rely on nuclear fuel supplies from another country rather than producing its own.
Analysts said that U.S. officials appeared to be putting the best spin on a decision they had opposed. Robert J. Einhorn, a former top weapons proliferation official in the Clinton and Bush administrations, said Bush's comments were an attempt to "make lemonade out of this lemon."
Aghazadeh, the Iranian atomic energy official, said on state television that Iran would continue its enrichment activities at a facility in the central city of Natanz to provide fuel for another reactor it plans to build in the southwestern town of Darkhovin near the Iraqi border. Iran insists that it wants nuclear technology to generate electricity as its oil reserves are depleted.
The U.S. and Israel suspect that the uranium enrichment facility in Natanz, a heavy-water reactor in Arak and other nuclear facilities are building blocks for an eventual weapons program. For those alleged aspirations, Washington hawks have suggested Iran could face U.S. military action.
No one suspects Iran of harboring a secret bomb factory at Bushehr. But some scientists say spent fuel from a light-water reactor could be used to create fissile material for a bomb.
Moscow's Foreign Ministry insists that Russia won't allow the fuel to be diverted. "All fuel that will be delivered will be under the control and guarantees of the International Atomic Energy Agency for the whole time it stays on Iranian territory," it said in a statement Monday.
"All our processed fuel is to be returned, gram by gram," said Sergei Karaganov, chairman of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy in Moscow. "It was actually kind of a political lever more than an actual concern that our fuel could be used for weapons," he said. "It can't be used for weapons under any circumstances. This is a fact of life."
Delivery of 80 tons of uranium fuel to Bushehr will take up to two months, said Irina Yesipova, Atomstroyexport spokeswoman.
Russia has always insisted that it delayed supplying the fuel rods for the Bushehr plant because of financial disputes with Iranian counterparts. But many analysts have said that Russia was concerned about the direction of Iran's nuclear program, which could pose a far greater threat to Eastern Europe than North America.
Bush administration officials also say they don't want Iran to gain advanced nuclear expertise. They mistrust Iran's government, pointing to the nation's 18-year clandestine program, which was exposed by a dissident group earlier this decade.
The U.S., along with France and Britain, had been steadily pushing for a third round of sanctions when the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate released this month concluded that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program.
China and Russia, which wield veto power on the U.N. Security Council, have balked at new sanctions. Now with the release of the NIE reducing the threat of a U.S. attack on Iran, Beijing and Moscow are closing a number of financial deals with Iran that they had put on hold.
"For us, the old information we got was that they didn't have a military program," Karaganov said. "Now it has been confirmed by the U.S. intelligence. Thank God, because it has ended speculation that the Americans are preparing a massive attack."
Beijing signed a $2-billion energy deal with Tehran. Russia will sell Iran 130 Russian-made Tupolev passenger planes over the next 10 years, to upgrade Iran's aging fleet of Boeing and Airbus jets, according to Russia's Interfax news agency.
Russia's Industry and Energy Ministry said in a statement Monday that Lukoil Overseas would be resuming operations at an Iranian oil field that had been halted because of U.S. sanctions.
Russia's EuroChem Mineral and Chemical Co. on Monday was holding talks in Moscow about building a factory with Iran's National Petrochemical Co., according to Interfax.
A high-ranking Russian military delegation is scheduled to arrive in Tehran on Wednesday.
And though the Bush administration has urged Russian President Vladimir V. Putin to curtail Moscow's multibillion-dollar nuclear trade with Tehran, Russia delivered the fuel to the Bushehr plant, which is being built by Russian scientists and engineers.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in a televised interview Sunday, said Tehran had reaped a harvest from the U.S. intelligence estimate's undercutting of the rationale for American airstrikes to halt Iran's nuclear program.
"The nuclear issue after a period of escalation reached a climax but now is in its anticlimax and de-escalation state," said Ahmadinejad, who departed for Saudi Arabia on Monday as the first Iranian president to receive a prestigious invitation to attend the pilgrimage to Mecca.
"I think the NIE report was a U-turn in the U.S. This U-turn is the result of internal disputes in the U.S. administration -- which I do not want to elaborate more on now -- and the steadfastness of the Iranian nation," he said.
Daragahi reported from Tehran and Stack from Moscow. Times staff writers James Gerstenzang and Paul Richter in Washington and Sergei L. Loiko in Moscow and special correspondent Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran contributed to this report.