Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Russia and Iran have agreed on a timetable for completing the Iranian nuclear reactor at Bushehr, which has been at the center of the international controversy over Iran's nuclear program, a Russian official said on Thursday.
"The difficulties with the Iranian client are resolved, and we have an agreement on the timetable for the construction," said Sergei Shmatko, the head of the company that has contracted to build the nuclear plant. He said more details would be released later.
Construction began on the nuclear reactor after a German company signed the original contract in 1975. But it was halted following the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran.
In 1995, Moscow signed an agreement with Tehran to complete the reactor by the end of this year. But work on the $1-billion plant has been slowed because of troubles between Iran and Russia over payments, fuel delivery and other issues, the Associated Press reported.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Aryeh Mekel declined to comment on the announcement of the Russian-Iranian agreement to finish the nuclear reactor.
Iran has not given up its nuclear aspirations and its development of ballistic missiles, Mekel said by telephone. The international community needs to pursue diplomatic and economic measures to stop Iran's nuclear ambitions, he insisted.
Asked why Israel considers Russia to be its friend if it is helping Iran develop nuclear plants, Mekel said despite their differences, the two countries have ties: He pointed to Russia's strong anti-terrorism policy and he noted that many Israelis emigrated from the former Soviet Union.
He said Russia and Israel can be open about their differences.
The U.S., Israel and others have said all along that Iran is using a civilian nuclear energy program as a cover-up for the development of nuclear weapons, and they have long criticized the construction of the plant.
The Russian announcement that it will help complete the Bushehr nuclear plants comes a week after the U.S. intelligence community released a National Intelligence Estimate expressing "high confidence" that Iran had stopped its pursuit of nuclear weapons in 2003. (Confusing the issue, a 2005 NIE said Iran was still pursuing nuclear weapons.)
President Bush insists that Iran still poses a danger.
"We believe Iran had a secret military weapons program, and Iran must explain to the world why they had such a program," Bush said this week. Iran is obligated to explain this secret program to the International Atomic Energy Agency, he said.
Israel rejected the U.S. assessment, saying it believes that Iran is still trying to obtain nuclear weapons.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert noted that Iran is continuing to pursue the "two vital components" for making nuclear weapons -- developing their long-range ballistic missiles and enriching uranium.
Olmert said the NIE had been interpreted by some in Israel as "an American retreat from its support of Israel." But that was "groundless," Olmert said this week. He said he was confident that the U.S. would continue to lead the international campaign against Iranian nuclear development.
"The solution can be found in the combination of efforts on the part of the United States and Russia, China and the European countries, to exert effective pressure on Iran," Olmert said.
But experts here said they are concerned that the NIE will weaken international resolve to deal with Iran at a time when the U.S. is pushing for a third and tougher round of international sanctions against Tehran.
U.N. diplomats were quoted by the Associated Press on Wednesday as saying that the issue of tougher sanctions would not likely be taken up this year due to differences between the U.S. and its European allies on one hand and Russia and China, who don't want stricter sanctions, on the other.
The Russian news agency Novosti reported on Thursday that trade between Russia and Iran more than doubled between January and September of this year to $2.2 billion.
Iran is proposing that the two countries set up consortiums in electric power, energy and other areas, press reports said.
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