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Three days of talks aimed at resolving a funding dispute over the Russian-built Bushehr nuclear plant in Iran ended in failure Friday, signaling yet another delay in the start-up of Iran's first atomic power plant and potentially new tension between Tehran and Moscow.
With the UN nuclear watchdog agency imposing new punitive measures against Tehran, analysts said that Russia's tough stance shows Moscow's readiness to dump support for its ally and trading partner and join the United States and other Western nations in drafting new, tougher sanctions over Iran's uranium enrichment effort.
Russia has blamed Iran for paying only a fraction of the required monthly payments of US$25 million (â‚¬19 million) for construction work at Bushehr in recent months, and warned that the payment delays would push back both the reactor's launch and the uranium fuel deliveries.
"The Iranian failure to take quick measures to resume payments will mean (works) falling further behind the schedule," Atomstroiexport, the state-run Russian company building the Bushehr plant, said in a statement released after the talks finished.
A Russian official familiar with the talks, speaking Friday after three days of talks, said that the Iranians had offered to increase the amount of its regular payments for the project, but refused to put that offer in writing.
The official, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks, said the continuing disagreement meant that Russia would not ship uranium fuel needed to run it this month, as had earlier been planned - and the reactor would not be launched in September.
Iran has urged Russia to speed up the fuel delivery, but Russian officials said it would only be delivered six months before the plant's launch.
Mohammed Saeedi, the vice president of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran who led the Iranian delegation in the Moscow talks, said in remarks carried by state-run Vesti-24 television that Tehran was ready to provide more funds to enable the plant in the southern Iranian city of Bushehr to be launched in September as planned.
He also strongly urged Russia to deliver uranium fuel for the plant this month, as earlier agreed.
Saeedi denied any payment delays, but, striking a condescending note, said that his nation was ready to help Atomstroiexport with more funds.
Atomstroiexport officials say that Iran has not made any payments since Jan. 17. The company said in a statement Friday that the Iranian delegation promised to resume payments next week and that a new round of talks is set for next week in Tehran.
"So far, the problems and excuses raised by this (Russian) company have been technical and financial. But if fuel for the plant is not shipped to Iran by the end of March, then it means the matter has gone beyond technical bounds," the official Islamic Republic News Agency quoted Saeedi as saying.
He added that to obtain the fuel, "we are determined not to leave the Russians with any financial or technical excuse," according to IRNA.
Alexander Pikayev, a senior analyst at the Moscow-based Institute for World Economy and International Relations, said that the talks failure signaled that Russia was taking a tougher line on Tehran amid the continuing refusal to halt uranium enrichment activities which the United States and some allies say are aimed at developing nuclear weapons.
"Russia is using routine Iranian payment delays as a pretext to delay fuel deliveries and the Bushehr reactor's launch," Pikayev told the AP. "Russia wants to put pressure on the Iranians to show them that their refusal to heed the Security Council's demands wouldn't go unpunished."
While Iran emphasizes that it has the legal right to develop an enrichment program to generate nuclear power, the U.. Security Council has called on Tehran to end enrichment activities and imposed limited sanctions in December over its refusal to do so.
Senior representatives of the five permanent Security Council members - Russia, China, the United States, Britain and France - have been discussing possible new sanctions against Iran to force it to suspend enrichment efforts.
In Vienna on Thursday, delegates to a 35-nation meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency approved the suspension of 22 nuclear technical aid projects to Iran as part of UN sanctions.
Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs, said that Moscow's tough line apparently signals its readiness to join the West in tougher sanctions.
"The Iranian standoff appears to be an issue where Russia now can cooperate with the West, particularly the United States," Lukyanov said. "The Kremlin wants to demonstrate that it's ready to take a constructive attitude in areas where Russian and US interests coincide."