Russia has rejected European-proposed UN sanctions aimed at forcing Iran to halt its suspected nuclear weapons drive, but Moscow appears to be applying its own pressure by threatening to delay a key nuclear power project.
Analysts say the Kremlin is determined not to push Iran into a corner like North Korea -- blaming tough US policies for Pyongyang's recent nuclear test -- but Tehran's refusal to compromise has led to growing impatience in Moscow despite the two countries' close commercial ties.
On Wednesday, a planned visit to Moscow by Iran's foreign minister was abruptly postponed, a move seen as a diplomatic snub reflecting Iranian annoyance at Russian hints of a delay to the construction of the country's first nuclear power station.
Manouchehr Mottaki had been scheduled to hold talks with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, in Moscow during a two-day visit due to start yesterday. But the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a terse statement that the visit had been postponed until a later date.
Later on Wednesday, Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, said on Iranian television that he would travel to Moscow within "the next day or two" for talks including nuclear issues.
Experts say that Moscow could be using its US$1 billion contract to build the plant in the southern city of Bushehr as a lever of pressure on Tehran.
"Russia is not ready to support fully fledged sanctions against Iran but it is looking for ways to convince the Iranians to be more transparent in their nuclear research activities," said Anton Khlopkov, deputy director of the Moscow-based PIR Center, which specializes in nonproliferation.
The announcement that Mottaki's trip was postponed came after a senior Russian nuclear official said on Wednesday that Russia would shortly review the timetable for completing construction of Bushehr, which has already been repeated delayed.
In September, Russia agreed to ship fuel to Bushehr by March next year and launch the facility in September, adding to the concerns of the US and others over Tehran's nuclear ambitions. Fuel from the plant potentially could be diverted and used to produce bombs.
But on Tuesday an unidentified Russian nuclear industry official was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies that Russia could postpone the timetable if Iran fails to meet unspecified commitments. According to ITAR-Tass, the official said one of the problems is that Iran has not adhered to a payment schedule.
Russia, which along with China has the right of veto as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, has been the main obstacle to efforts by Western nations to punish Iran for its refusal to halt sensitive uranium enrichment activity.
Last week, Moscow proposed major amendments weakening the European draft resolution that would impose sanctions on Iran.