Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said on Thursday that Iran's Russian-built nuclear power plant will be launched this summer, even as the United States called for Russia to delay the startup.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, in Moscow on an official trip, urged Russia not to launch the plant until Tehran proves that it's not developing atomic weapons.
But Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, at a joint press conference with Clinton, immediately responded that Russia would put the reactor online.
Putin, who is expected to meet with Clinton Friday, was on a trip to southern Russia when he said Moscow was committed to starting operations at the Iranian atomic power plant.
"The first reactor at Iran's nuclear power plant in Bushehr is to be launched already in the summer," Putin said. He didn't mention an exact launch date or add any other details during his meeting with nuclear officials in the city of Volgodonsk. Both Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev are expected to meet with Clinton Friday.
Russia signed a $1 billion contract in 1995 for building the Bushehr plant, but it has dragged its feet on completing the project for years.
Moscow has cited technical reasons for the delays, but analysts said Moscow has used the project to press Tehran to ease its defiance over its nuclear program.
Some Iranian lawmakers have accused Russia of delaying the project under the Western pressure.
Clinton urged Russia to postpone the plant startup until Iran proves it is not trying to build nuclear weapons. "If it reassures the world, or if its behavior is changed because of international sanctions, then they can pursue peaceful, civil nuclear power," Clinton said when asked about Russian intention to launch Bushehr.
"In the absence of those reassurances, we think it would be premature to go forward with any project at this time, because we want to send an unequivocal message to the Iranians," she said at a briefing following her talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
Lavrov immediately responded that Russia still intends to launch the plant.
"The project will be completed, and now we have entered a final phase of technological preparations," he said, adding that the plant has been closely supervised by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Lavrov said that the Bushehr project is essential for persuading Iran to cooperate with the IAEA and fulfill its obligations under international nuclear nonproliferation agreements. Russia has walked a fine line on Iran for years. It is one of the six powers leading international efforts to ensure Iran does not develop an atomic bomb.
Russia has backed three sets of U.N. Security Council sanctions on Iran over its uranium enrichment program in the past. In recent months, it has signaled that it could support a new round of sanctions on condition they don't harm the population. But it also has tried to maintain friendly ties with the Islamic Republic, a regional power close to Russia's vulnerable southern flank.