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Delays Reported in Iran's Return of Nuclear Fuel to Russia - 2003-11-19

A senior Russian nuclear official says a long-delayed agreement calling on Iran to return all spent nuclear fuel to Russia faces new delays.

Russian Atomic Energy Minister Alexander Rumyantsev says it could be several months more before Moscow and Tehran sign the deal on spent fuel. The signing has been postponed repeatedly since the beginning of this year.

The agreement is important because it would clear the way for Moscow to complete construction of Iran's first nuclear power reactor at Bushehr on the Persian Gulf. In an interview with Russia's Itar-Tass news agency on Wednesday, Mr. Rumyantsev sought to downplay the delay.

He said there is no rush to sign the agreement because Russian fuel shipments to Bushehr are not scheduled to start until early next year. Iranian officials, he said, are too busy opening their nuclear program to closer inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna to finalize the agreement now.

Iran's nuclear energy program is on the agenda of this week's meeting of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, which is examining U.S. claims Iran is secretly building a nuclear bomb. Iran has denied the charges, saying its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only.

Under American pressure, Russia has agreed not deliver any fuel to the Bushehr power plant until Iran signs the agreement, one of whose provisions requires Iran agree to return all of the reactor's spent fuel back to Russia for disposal.

Spent fuel can be used to make plutonium, which can also be used in nuclear weapons.