European And U.S. Officials: Russia Pulling Out Experts From Bushehr Nuclear Reactor

Tuesday, March 20th 2007, 12:21 pm
By: News On 6

VIENNA, Austria (AP) _ Russia is pulling out its experts from the Iranian nuclear reactor site they were helping build, U.S. and European officials said Tuesday. The move reflected a growing rift between Iran and Russia that could lead to harsher U.N. sanctions on the Islamic republic for its refusal to stop uranium enrichment.

The representatives _ a European diplomat and a U.S. official _ said a large number of Russian technicians, engineers and other specialists have returned to Moscow in the past week, at about the same time senior Russian and Iranian officials tried unsuccessfully to resolve financial differences over the Bushehr nuclear reactor. They spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because their information was confidential.

``A good number of them have left recently,'' said the U.S. official, of the approximately 2,000 Russian workers on site of the nearly completed reactor outside the southern city of Bushehr. The European diplomat, who is accredited to the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, said a large number had left as recently as last week.

Sergei Novikov, a spokesman for Rosatom, Russia's Federal Nuclear Power Agency, confirmed that the number of Russian workers at the Bushehr plant had dwindled because of what he said were Iranian payment delays. He would not say how many had left.

In a commentary, Iranian state television criticized Russia for what it described as a policy of procrastination in constructing Bushehr.

``Double standard stances by Russian officials regarding Iran's nuclear issue shows that Russians are not a reliable partner in the field of nuclear cooperation,'' the commentary said.

The nuclear reactor outside the southern city of Bushehr is not part of Iran's dispute with the U.N. Security Council and the reactor itself has no potential military use.

The Russian departures are formally linked to a financial dispute with Iran but have a strong political component, linked to international efforts to persuade the Islamic republic to freeze activities linked to uranium enrichment, which can produce both nuclear fuel and the fissile material for nuclear warheads.

Although the reactor is 95 percent completed, Russia announced this month that further work would be delayed because Iran had failed to make monthly payments since January. It said the delay could cause ``irreversible'' damage to the project.

Because of the delay, Russia also indefinitely postponed delivery of enriched uranium fuel it had promised to provide Iran by this month.

Iran, which denies falling behind in payments, was furious, convinced Russia _ which has long blunted a U.S.-led push for the U.N. Security Council sanctions _ was now using the claim of financial arrears as a pretext to increase pressure for it to heed the council.