Russia is pulling out its technicians and engineers from Bushehr, US and European government representatives said, leaving Iran's first nuclear reactor just short of completion at a time of growing international pressure on Tehran to curb its atomic ambitions.
The representatives -- a European diplomat and a US official -- said yesterday that a large number of Russian technicians, engineers and other specialists were flown back to Moscow within the last week, at about the same time senior Russian and Iranian officials tried, but failed, to resolve differences over the Bushehr nuclear reactor. They spoke on condition of anonymity because their information was confidential.
Although both sides officially say their differences are financial, the dispute has a strong political component that the West hopes could result in Moscow lining up closer behind US-led efforts to slap harsher UN sanctions on Tehran for its refusal to freeze uranium enrichment.
Russian officials deny links between the dispute over Bushehr and Iran's nuclear defiance. But two senior European officials, speaking separately, said yesterday that Moscow recently dropped all pretexts and bluntly told Iran that Russia would not make good on pledges to deliver nuclear fuel for Bushehr unless it complies with the UN demand for an enrichment freeze.
And asked about the approximately 2,000 Russian workers on site of the nearly completed reactor outside the southern city of Bushehr, the US official said: "A good number of them have left recently."
The European diplomat, who is accredited to the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, said a large number had departed as late as last week, during abortive talks in Moscow between Russian Security Council head Igor Ivanov and Ali Hosseini Tash, Iran's deputy Security Council chief.
Sergei Novikov, a spokesman for Rosatom, Russia's Federal Nuclear Power Agency, confirmed the number of Russian workers at the Bushehr plant had recently dwindled because of what he said were Iranian payment delays. He would not say how many had left.
The Russian departures are formally linked to a financial row between Moscow and Tehran -- but are also connected to international efforts to persuade Tehran to freeze activities related to uranium enrichment, which can produce both nuclear fuel and the fissile material for nuclear warheads.
The reactor is 95 percent completed, although eight years behind schedule. But Russia announced this month that further work on the US$1 billion project would be delayed because Iran had failed to make monthly payments since January. It said the delay could cause "irreversible" damage to the project.
Iran, which denies falling behind in payments, was furious and was convinced that Russia was now using the claim of financial arrears as a pretext to increase pressure for it to heed the UN Security Council.
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