Russia has delivered the first shipment of nuclear fuel to Iran's Bushehr atomic power station, a step Western powers worried by Tehran's nuclear ambitions had urged Moscow not to take.
Anticipating a diplomatic storm over the announcement, Russia said on Monday that Tehran had given it assurances the fuel sent to Bushehr would not be used for other purposes, and it urged Tehran to drop its own uranium enrichment program.
But a senior Iranian official said the country would not under any circumstances halt its enrichment program -- the source of friction with foreign powers worried it could be used for military purposes.
Russia, contracted by Iran to build its first ever nuclear power station at Bushehr, has been delaying delivery of the fuel for months after the project was drawn into the international row over Iran's nuclear ambitions.
In a statement issued early on Monday, Russia's foreign ministry said the project was back on track. On December 16 the delivery of fuel began from Russia to the Iranian atomic power station in Bushehr, the foreign ministry said.
Iran confirmed the first batch of about 80 tons had been delivered. The first shipment of fuel for the Bushehr plant has arrived in Iran, the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organisation, Gholamreza Aghazadeh, told the official IRNA news agency.
The delivery of fuel will continue and the whole amount of fuel will be delivered to Iran as scheduled, he said.
The first shipment -- uranium 235 stored in modules of several fuel rods -- is now being stored at Bushehr in southern Iran and the rest will be delivered within the next two months. After that, the plant can start operating within 6 months.
The United States and allies, which suspect Iran of harboring ambitions to acquire a nuclear weapon, had called on Moscow not to dispatch the fuel. Iran says its intentions are purely peaceful.
Russia says Bushehr is being built under supervision of the United Nation's nuclear watchdog, ruling out any military use for the fuel or technology. It said it had been given new guarantees on this before sending the fuel.
The Iranian side has supplied additional written assurances regarding the fact that the fuel will be used exclusively for the atomic power station at Bushehr, the Russian foreign ministry statement said.
The U.N. Security Council has imposed two rounds of sanctions on Iran for its refusal to halt enrichment, a process which the West believes Tehran is seeking to master so that it will have the ability to build nuclear weapons.
The Russian foreign ministry said delivering fuel to Bushehr made Iran's own enrichment program redundant, and that Iran should take the opportunity to halt enrichment.
We believe that qualitatively new conditions have been created which will allow Iran to take the steps which are demanded of it ... for the restoration of trust in the peaceful nature of the Iranian nuclear program, said the statement.
But a senior Iranian official rejected this.
There is no talk of halting enrichment. Nothing is related to freezing enrichment. The delivery (of fuel) is not in the framework of the (U.N.) resolutions or the framework of talks, the official told Reuters.
(Additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Tehran; Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Giles Elgood)