Major powers united on pressuring Iran: Clinton

Russia to start Iran's Bushehr nuke plant in 2010

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U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Thursday major powers were united on working toward putting more pressure on Iran over its nuclear program, which the West suspects aims to develop atomic weapons, as Russia said it will start Iran's Bushehr nuclear by the end of 2010.

Speaking at a news conference, Clinton also said that the United States would not back down in the nuclear dispute with Tehran, which says that its nuclear program is used to generate power so it can export more of its valuable oil and gas.

But she gave no details about when the so-called P5-plus-1 would next meet after a weekend meeting in New York at the political directors level yielded no apparent results and was attended by a lower-level Chinese official.

The chief of Russia's state nuclear corporation told reporters earlier that
Russia will start up the reactor at Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant this year, as Iran denied it had rejected a U.N.-brokered offer to exchange enriched nuclear fuel but it only want the swap to happen on stages.

"2010 is the year of Bushehr"

"2010 is the year of Bushehr," Rosatom chief Sergei Kiriyenko told reporters after a cabinet meeting in Moscow.

"There is absolutely no doubt that it will be built this year. Everything is going according to schedule," he said. Kiriyenko declined to answer a question on when exactly the plant would be started up.

Russia agreed in 1995 to build the 1,000 megawatt nuclear power plant at Bushehr on the Gulf coast in south-western Iran, but delays have haunted the $1 billion project and diplomats say Moscow has used it as a lever in relations with Tehran.

The atomic power station was once a source of disagreement between Russia and the West, which suspected the Islamic Republic could try to use it to build nuclear weapons.

But in recent years, the United States has dropped its opposition and says the plant removes any need for Iran to have its own enrichment program.

Russia says the plant is purely civilian and cannot be used for any weapons program as it will come under International Atomic Energy Agency supervision. Iran will have to return all spent fuel rods to Russia.

Staged swap

Iran meanwhile has not rejected the U.N.-brokered offer to exchange enriched nuclear fuel, but it wants a staged swap rather than a wholesale handover of most of its stockpile, foreign ministry officials said in comments published Thursday.

"Iran did not reject the principle of the exchange (of nuclear fuel)," Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki was quoted as saying by the Mehr news agency.

His denial followed charges by Western diplomats that Iran had effectively rejected a proposal put forward by six major powers in talks in Vienna brokered by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog.

"Our position has not changed from what we already expressed in the past -- we are ready for a gradual exchange of fuel," Mehr quoted foreign ministry spokesman, Ramin Mehmanparast, as saying.

But his comments suggested that Iran remains at odds over the proposals with the six powers -- Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States.

The IAEA plan calls on Iran to hand over most of its stocks of low-enriched uranium in return for the phased supply by France and Russia of nuclear fuel enriched to the higher level required for a Tehran research reactor.

Iran insists it will only hand over its stocks gradually as it receives the fuel.

Western diplomats in Vienna said on Wednesday that Iran's insistence on a phased exchange effectively amounted to a rejection of the IAEA offer.

Western governments regard Iran's prior handover of most of its stocks of low-enriched uranium as a central plank of the deal as it will provide reassurance that the stockpiles will not be covertly enriched further to the much higher level required for a nuclear weapon.

Iran has always denied any such ambition, insisting that its nuclear program is for civilian programs only.

But the IAEA said talks on its plan were still continuing, and that the offer to Iran remained on the table.

Our position has not changed from what we already expressed in the past -- we are ready for a gradual exchange of fuel

Ramin Mehmanparast, Iranian Foreign Ministry

Formal response

The proposal, made last October, "which was supported by France, Russia and the United States, continues to be on the table," said the watchdog's spokeswoman, Gill Tudor.

"The IAEA is not in a position to discuss the views of the parties involved, but it is aware that they are considering the best solution," Tudor added.

A Western diplomat in Vienna told AFP that Iran had effectively given a formal response at a meeting between its ambassador Ali Asghar Soltanieh and the IAEA's new chief Yukiya Amano earlier this month.

According to the diplomat, Soltanieh had verbally reiterated the Islamic republic's earlier position, including the insistence on a gradual swap.

The IAEA refused to say whether the meeting took place or discuss its possible content.

Another diplomat said it was unclear whether Iran had actually delivered a written response. But "certainly there was no agreement to the TRR (Tehran research reactor) proposal," the diplomat said.

After the proposal was delivered to Iran in October, the powers gave it until the turn of the year to accept the deal but the deadline was ignored, prompting talk of fresh sanctions.

Mottaki has insisted that Tehran in fact has until the end of January to reach a uranium swap deal, stressing it will press on with plans to enrich nuclear fuel to a higher level itself if there is no agreement.

Mottaki gave the West a one-month "ultimatum" to accept the Iranian counter-proposal.

Iran is already under three sets of sanctions over its refusal to heed repeated U.N. Security Council ultimatums to suspend enrichment.

The IAEA is not in a position to discuss the views of the parties involved, but it is aware that they are considering the best solution

Gill Tudor, IAEA