Russia will delay starting up Iran's first nuclear power plant because Tehran is behind with payments, a Russian atomic industry source said on Monday, as a U.N. deadline neared for Iran to curb disputed nuclear activity.
In Tehran, a senior Iranian official denied any payment holdup, saying Iran had adhered precisely to contract terms with Moscow over the Russian-built plant at Bushehr.
Word of the setback for the project came as Iran hurriedly arranged talks on Tuesday with the International Atomic Energy Agency just ahead of an IAEA report that could expose Tehran to broader sanctions over its disputed nuclear program.
Iran's security council chief Ali Larijani will meet IAEA director Mohamed ElBaradei, who in a report to the U.N. Security Council later this week is expected to confirm that Tehran has defied a 60-day council deadline to stop enriching uranium.
Separately, ElBaradei said in a published interview Iran would be able to install 3,000 centrifuges as the basis for "industrial scale" enrichment in six-12 months.
Gholamreza Aghazadeh, head of Iran's atomic energy agency, is aiming for swifter installation -- one cascade (unit) of 164 centrifuges per week, according to a report by developing nation diplomats briefed by him when they visited Iran two weeks ago.
ElBaradei told the Financial Times it was too late for the world to deny Iran enrichment know-how, meaning that only diplomatic compromise, not sanctions, could resolve the crisis.
Western powers suspect Iran is secretly seeking atomic weapons, not just the civilian nuclear energy it says it wants.
Diplomats monitoring IAEA inspections have said Tehran has set up at least 2-3 cascades in the underground Natanz plant in recent weeks and is poised to switch them on for feeding with uranium for refinement into fuel at any time.
A source in Russia's nuclear power agency Rosatom told Reuters it was obvious the timetable for the Bushehr plant needed to be "corrected" because Tehran had not made payments for the work for more than a month.
Moscow had been due to start nuclear fuel deliveries for the plant in March, ahead of the reactor's planned September start. It was unclear how long the delay would be. Moscow has already pushed back completion several times, citing technical reasons.
U.N. SANCTIONS START BITING
Atomstroiexport, the Russian state company in charge of the Bushehr work, said existing U.N. sanctions against Iran were also contributing to the delays because of a trading ban on certain atomic equipment.
"There are certain obstacles affecting our work in Bushehr," said spokeswoman Irina Yesipova. "Because of the embargo a number of third countries declined to supply equipment (to Iran). That's why Russian producers have to provide all the equipment all of a sudden. It's a tough situation."
Washington wants Moscow to stop building the Bushehr plant altogether, believing it is encouraging Iran's bid to master uranium enrichment technology, the issue at the heart of Tehran's nuclear dispute with the West.
ElBaradei told a London conference on Monday that Western powers needed to reassure Tehran over its own security rather than just ratchet up international sanctions.
"Iran feels insecure. They live in a neighborhood which is not the most friendly," he said, noting that Pakistan and Russia both have nuclear weapons. "There are grievances between Iran and the West. You have got to address the security issue."
The Council on December 23 banned transfers of technology and expertise to Tehran's nuclear program. ElBaradei said he expected those sanctions to be toughened if Iran refused to halt enrichment.
Larijani and ElBaradei were expected to meet on Tuesday afternoon at an undisclosed location in Vienna, officials said.
"Larijani might come with some positive news, but that's speculation. No one really knows," said a European diplomat.
Tehran has said it will not heed the Council's 60-day deadline, vowing to press ahead with plans to upgrade research-level enrichment into "industrial scale" production.
The IAEA has been issuing reports on Iran for three years and Iran has often sought last-minute talks with top IAEA officials before a report to try and blunt its impact.
Iran wants talks on its nuclear program but rejects preconditions demanding it freeze the work, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said on Tuesday, just ahead of a U.N. deadline for Tehran to back down.
The U.N. Security Council has given Iran until Wednesday to stop enriching uranium, a process Tehran says will only make fuel for power plants. The West suspects Iran wants to refine uranium to the higher degree needed for the core of atom bombs.
The United States has piled on pressure by sending a second aircraft carrier to the Gulf and slapping sanctions on some Iranian banks and companies.
The BBC quoted unnamed diplomatic sources as saying contingency planning for any U.S. attack went beyond targeting atomic sites to include most of Iran's military infrastructure.
Washington has not ruled out military action but says it is seeking a diplomatic solution and is not planning a war.
"They tell us 'Come and negotiate on Iran's nuclear issue but the condition is to stop your activities'," Ahmadinejad told a rally, broadcast on state TV. "We have said that we want negotiations and talks but negotiations under just conditions."
The final say rests with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, but Ahmadinejad's comments were in line with his and other senior officials'. All have vowed to pursue atomic work.
"If they say that we should close down our fuel production facilities to resume talks, we say fine, but those who enter talks with us should also close down their nuclear fuel production facilities," Ahmadinejad said.
Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani meets the head of the U.N. watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Mohamed ElBaradei, in Vienna on Tuesday. Iran has often sought last-minute talks ahead of deadlines over its nuclear ambitions.
ElBaradei is expected to report to the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday that Tehran has defied a 60-day deadline to suspend enrichment, as demanded in a December 23 resolution that also banned transfers of technology and know-how to Iran's atomic program. ElBaradei said an Iranian refusal could bring tougher penalties.
U.S. WARSHIPS MOVE IN
Amid rising tension, the U.S. aircraft carrier John C. Stennis and warships in its group joined another U.S. carrier in the strategic Gulf waterway on Monday, the U.S. Navy said.
Rear Admiral Kevin Quinn, commander of the Stennis strike group, said in a statement his ships were "here to help foster stability and security in the region." Analysts have seen the deployment as a warning to Iran to retreat from enrichment work.
The BBC report said in its report of possible U.S. action:
"It is understood that any such attack -- if ordered -- would target Iranian air bases, naval bases, missile facilities and command-and-control centers."
Nuclear targets would include the uranium enrichment facility of Natanz in central Iran where Tehran operates a few hundred centrifuges at a research level but plans to install thousands to achieve so-called "industrial-scale" enrichment.
ElBaradei said in a Financial Times interview that Iran would be able to install 3,000 centrifuges as the basis for "industrial scale" fuel production in six to 12 months.
Diplomats monitoring IAEA inspections have said Tehran has set up mechanisms in the plant in recent weeks and is poised to activate them to feed in uranium for refinement into fuel at any time.
One diplomat said a nine-tonne container of uranium hexafluoride gas, the feedstock for nuclear fuel, had been lowered into the plant in recent days.
But ElBaradei noted intelligence estimates that Iran remained four to eight years away from mastering the means to assemble a nuclear weapon, assuming it wanted one, and that meant ample time remained for talks. Sanctions alone would not work, he said.
The IAEA has issued reports on Iran since 2003 but says it needs more information to verify Iran's plans are only peaceful.
Larijani previously said Iran might consider some kind of compromise deal, such as restrictions on the level to which Iran is allowed to enrich uranium. Diplomats say another proposal could let Iran run some centrifuges without injecting feedstock.
But diplomats say the United States and other Western nations are likely to oppose anything short of suspending enrichment because Iran would still be able to practice the skills required to master the process.
1. S. Korea Believes N. Korea Has Uranium-Enriching Program: Intelligence Chief
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South Korea's intelligence agency said Tuesday it believes North Korea is running a clandestine uranium-enriching program, an allegation that has been surfacing as a key source of contention on a nuclear disarmament deal reached last week.
"We believe (the program) exists," Kim Man-bok, head of the National Intelligence Service, told a parliamentary committee, according to lawmakers who participated in the closed-door meeting.
Kim was answering a question about whether the North is operating a highly-enriched uranium (HEU) program, the lawmakers said, on condition of anonymity.
At the six-party talks in Beijing last week, North Korea agreed on initial steps for dismantling its nuclear program in return for energy and economic aid and improved ties with the United States.
Critics, however, raised questions over the pact, saying it failed to address several key issues, such as the North's alleged uranium-enriching program and existing plutonium-based weapons. North Korea has denied it has a uranium-enrichment program.
Under the new deal, North Korea has promised to shut down and seal its main nuclear reactor in Yongbyon and allow international inspectors back into the communist country within 60 days in return for aid equivalent to 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil from the other participants in the talks--the United States, South Korea, China, Russia and Japan.
The North will get an additional 950,000 tons of fuel oil if it completely disarms its nuclear-related facilities.
1. U.S. Puzzled by Russiaï¿½s Missile Shield Concerns
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An American diplomat said Tuesday his country was puzzled by Russia's anxiety about the deployment of U.S. missile defenses in central Europe while a senior Russian military official reiterated national security concerns.
The United States has announced plans to build a radar installation in the Czech Republic and a missile base in Poland in the next five years. The cost of the five-year project, which envisions a further addition of sea-based missile defense and satellite surveillance support elements, is estimated at $1.6 billion.
U.S. insists that the European missile shield is meant to counter possible attacks from Iran or North Korea but Russia says the deployment of missile bases close to its borders could only mean it is the real target.
Speaking at a news conference in the capital of Ukraine, U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor downplayed Moscow's concerns and said Russia itself should be worried about the missile threat from rogue states.
But the Chief of the Russian General Staff, Yury Baluyevsky, said in an interview with the Rossiiskaya Gazeta daily that the U.S unilateral actions could damage the balance of power in Europe and undermine the Russian nuclear deterrence potential.
"Knowing the potential technical characteristics of fire support and weapons systems, we can affirm that despite numerous assurances that these systems are not targeted at Russia, they could still affect our deterrence potential under certain circumstances," the general said.
Baluyevsky reiterated that Russia is strictly adhering to its nuclear disarmament obligations while the U.S. is driving to base missile shield elements in Europe, which coincides with NATO expansion closer to Russian borders.
"These actions cannot but raise suspicions about the real purpose of the U.S. missile defense plans and their possible consequences for Russia and Europe," the military official said.
He explained that even the interception of ballistic missiles close to Russian borders or over Russian territory could pose a threat to the country.
"These situations are highly probable because it is almost impossible to completely destroy a ballistic missile carrying a weapon of mass destruction or a nuclear warhead without contaminating the atmosphere or the surface," Baluyevsky said.
He also expressed harsh criticism against the governments of Poland and the Czech Republic which reaffirmed Monday their readiness to allow the U.S. to base parts of its missile shield on their territories.
"While the Czechs and Poles are not worried about the missile debris falling on their territory for the sake of the security of their "distant ally," Russian citizens are raising a legitimate question: why should we become hostages of circumstance?" Baluyevsky said, adding that all the sides involved in the U.S. plans should carefully assess the possible consequences before making any decisions.
"That is why Russia is taking and will maintain a firm stand opposing the deployment of a U.S missile shield in Europe," he said.
The Russian military chief earlier said that in response to the U.S. missile deployment plans Moscow might unilaterally abandon the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) which eliminated nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometers (300 to 3,400 miles).
Following this warning to the U.S., Commander of the Russian Strategic Missile Forces (SMF) Nikolai Solovtsov said Monday that the SMF will be able to track down elements of the U.S. missile defense system if deployed in central Europe.
"If the governments of Poland and the Czech Republic make such a decision, the Strategic Missile Forces will be able to target these systems," he said.
He also said Russia possessed the technology and the capability to resume production of intermediate- and short-range missiles in the near future.
Meanwhile, Ambassador Taylor dismissed Moscow's allegations that the U.S. is planning to conduct talks with Ukraine on the placement of its missile shield elements in the former Soviet republic.
The diplomat said a U.S. delegation is scheduled to visit Ukraine in the next three weeks to discuss Ukraine's accession to NATO and the bilateral military cooperation under existing military assistance programs.
China announced Saturday that it was imposing tighter controls on nuclear technology to curb the proliferation of "mass destructive weapons."
The announcement, which was signed by Premier Wen Jiabao and posted on the government's website, prohibits importers of nuclear goods or related technologies, including software, from using the products for any purpose other than stated in the purchase agreement or transferring the goods to an unapproved third party.
Importers reproducing material for nuclear fuel purposes must be supervised by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations nuclear watchdog, the announcement states.
China, a nuclear power and member of the U.N. Security Council, has become more active in arms control activities in recent years and has played a key role in the six-party talks aimed at persuading North Korea to give up its nuclear program.
But critics argue that China has not done enough to prevent sensitive military technology from ending up in the wrong hands. That has led the U.S. to impose tough controls on the export to China of so-called dual-use technology that has civilian and military uses. The latest announcement could boost efforts by the Chinese government, and U.S. business groups, to get those restrictions relaxed.
Under the revised rules, China's Ministry of Commerce will be responsible for enforcing the import rules and will have the authority to make changes in collaboration with the IAEA.
The ministry also can detain and inspect suspicious cargo and impose "hefty fines" on violators of the rules.
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