By Maria Golovnina
MOSCOW - Russia and Iran said Thursday they had finished construction of an atomic power plant in the Islamic Republic -- a project the United States fears Tehran could use to make nuclear arms.
Diplomats in Moscow said the announcement, made after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited Iran, reflected Russia's readiness to press ahead with the project in return for Tehran's increased cooperation with the U.N. nuclear watchdog.
"We're done," said a spokesman for Russia's Atomic Energy Agency (RosAtom). "All we need to do now is work out an agreement on sending spent fuel back to Russia."
Such an agreement with Iran is designed to allay U.S. concerns. Iran would guarantee it would return to Russia all spent nuclear fuel, which can be used to make weapons. But the signing, due last year, has been repeatedly delayed.
Alaeddin Boroujerdi, head of the Iranian Parliament's Foreign Affairs and National Security Commission, confirmed the construction phase at Bushehr.
"The (nuclear fuel) agreement is practically ready. If experts agree on a few remaining commercial matters, it could be signed in November," Boroujerdi told reporters in Moscow after talks with Russian officials.
Tehran insists its nuclear program is entirely peaceful.
RosAtom head Alexander Rumyantsev is due to visit Iran in late November. But industry sources say the signing depends on the outcome of a Nov. 25 International Atomic Energy Agency meeting, which would decide whether to refer Iran to the U.N. Security Council for possible sanctions.
Russia is under severe U.S. pressure to ditch the $800 million Bushehr project but -- as a permanent Security Council member -- would have a veto on any sanctions vote.
Diplomats in Moscow said the announcement may also be intended to send a message ahead of a Group of Eight meeting of industrialized countries in Washington later this week that Russia would firmly stand by its ally in the Middle East.
"It's no coincidence that the announcement comes right after Lavrov's visit to Tehran," one Western diplomat said.
"It would have been logical for Russians to promise to stick to the Bushehr project in exchange for making Iran cooperate with the IAEA better."
Russia's stance on Iran toughened last month after Tehran threatened to defy an IAEA call for it to stop work on enriching uranium -- a process that can be used to develop nuclear arms.
The 1,000-megawatt Bushehr plant is due to be launched in the next year or so and reach full capacity in 2006. The RosAtom spokesman said work still remained to be done on assembling some security and control equipment.
Russia has been building the plant since the early 1990s.