MOSCOW (Reuters) - A senior Russian atomic energy official said on Tuesday he knew nothing about reports Russia is withholding fuel for a Iranian nuclear plant until Tehran answers questions from the United Nations about its nuclear ambitions.
Diplomats said this month Moscow had struck an unofficial deal to make Iranian compliance with the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) a condition for delivering fuel to the Bushehr power plant, which Moscow is building.
Asked by Reuters if such a deal existed, Nikolai Spassky, deputy head of Russian state atomic energy agency Rosatom, said: "I do not know anything about that."
But he declined to say when Russia would deliver fuel to Bushehr, on the Persian Gulf.
"There have been some preliminary statements about a date for the delivery of fuel. To go into details about that, given the construction has not entered its final phase, would not be right, the issue is too hot," he told Reuters.
Delivering nuclear fuel to the power plant will be a symbolic moment and is likely to expose Russia to criticism from the West.
Both Moscow and Tehran insist the Bushehr project will not help Iran acquire nuclear weapons technology, and they say the project has nothing to do with the international row over Iran's nuclear ambitions.
But the project has become a sensitive political issue. Washington has tried, so far without success, to have restrictions on Bushehr included in UN sanctions on Iran.
Some observers say Russia, mindful of Western opposition, has been deliberately delaying the completion of Bushehr.
Citing technical problems and missed payments by Iran, Russia has repeatedly pushed back the plant's completion date. In the latest delay, the start date was moved to late 2008.
"We had technical and financial problems which we are resolving fairly successfully with Iran," he said on the sidelines of a conference. "The process is moving fairly slowly but nevertheless it is moving. The construction continues."
The United States and European powers suspect Iran of using its nuclear power programme as a cover for a weapons-building programme. Tehran says it has no such programme and wants nuclear technology exclusively for power generation.
Western states have pressed for tough sanctions on Iran but Russia, which has a veto in the U.N. Security Council, has watered these down.
Speaking earlier at the conference, which gathered arms control experts, Spassky said Bushehr was entirely in line with U.N regulations.
"Our cooperation with Iran on the construction of the Bushehr power plant represents a very serious anchor which induces Iran to cooperate, to remain within the framework of the non-proliferation treaty and the IAEA," he said.