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Russia Denies Withholding Uranium From Iran

Russia has denied reports it threatened to withhold nuclear fuel for Iran's first atomic power plant unless Tehran complies with a U.N. demand to suspend uranium enrichment. VOA's Peter Heinlein reports from U.N. headquarters.

The New York Times newspaper Tuesday reported Russia has informed Iran it will cut off fuel supplies for the Bushehr nuclear power plant if Iran refuses to heed U.N. Security Council demands to halt its suspect uranium enrichment program.

The front-page story quotes European, American and Iranian officials as saying Russian National Security Council chief Igor Ivanov delivered the ultimatum last week in Moscow.

The article elicited a strong denial from Russian diplomats. Speaking to reporters outside the Security Council chamber, Moscow's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin bluntly called the report "not true."

He said Russia sees no link between its financial dispute with Iran over payments for work at Bushehr, and the sanctions imposed on Iran by last December's Security Council resolution 1737.

"I can tell you that the report is not accurate, that there have been no Russian ultimatums to Iran of any kind, and we continue to regard the Bushehr project as something which is outside the scope Resolution 1737," he said.

An Iranian news agency Tuesday also quoted a senior Tehran government official as denying the New York Times report.

But both sides admitted there is a growing financial dispute over the Bushehr power plant. The Associated Press reported from Vienna that Russia is pulling out experts from the Bushehr reactor because of Iran's failure to pay for work. Iranian state television described Russia as an "unreliable partner," and accused Moscow of a policy of procrastination at the nearly completed plant.

Moscow's U.N. Ambassador Churkin confirmed that there has been a reduction in the size of the Russian staff at Bushehr. But he went to great lengths to downplay the Moscow-Tehran dispute. "We have certain concerns over the Iranian nuclear program. We are talking very frankly and openly with them about it. They know, I hope, that we don't have any hidden agenda in our relations with Iran. And we think that relationship has a brilliant future. Especially if we can take care of this Iranian nuclear issue which has injected itself in the international agenda," he said.

Churkin confirmed that Russia remains supportive of the Security Council draft resolution that would toughen existing U.N. sanctions against Iran. The draft was agreed among six world powers, and is being discussed in the full 15-member Council this week.

South Africa, an elected member that also holds the Council presidency for March, offered amendments to the text, which could delay adoption for several days.

But Washington's acting U.N. Ambassador Alejandro Wolff said the United States and others among the Council's so-called P-5 powers, Britain and France, are eager for a vote this week. "We have a very good draft resolution text that builds on the 1737 framework. It has met with the agreement of the P-5 and other members of the Council. Others still have some questions and additional ideas. We will hear them out, and look forward to getting this resolution adopted this week," he said.

There were other signals Tuesday that a vote on the sanctions measure might come soon. Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has asked to speak to the Security Council before it votes on the measure. U.N. police sources say they have been asked to make security preparations for an Ahmadinejad visit as early as Wednesday.