TEHRAN, Iran — Iran received its first nuclear fuel from Russia on Monday, paving the way for the startup of its reactor in 2008.
Both the U.S. and Russia said that with the shipment, the Iranians would no longer have any reason to produce enriched uranium that could be used to build a nuclear weapon.
But Iran said it would continue its enrichment activities at a separate facility, in the central city of Natanz, to provide fuel for another nuclear reactor. Not only that, it indicated that construction had begun on just such a reactor, in Darkhovin in southwestern Iran.
"We are currently constructing a 360-megawatt nuclear power plant in Darkhovin," Vice President Gholam Reza Aghazadeh said on state television. Previously Iran had always described the Darkhovin plant as being in the planning stages.
Aghazadeh said it will take several more years for Iran to install 50,000 centrifuges in Natanz, an industrial-scale enrichment plant, to produce the fuel needed for Darkhovin. Tehran says the enrichment program is part of an effort to generate electricity, but the United States fears it will lead to weapons development.
After initial opposition, the U.S. now publicly supports Russia providing uranium fuel to Iran so long as Moscow retrieves the used reactor fuel for reprocessing, as stipulated in an agreement between Russia and Iran.
"If that's the case _ if the Russians are willing to do that, which I support _ then the Iranians do not need to learn how to enrich," Bush said in Fredricksburg, Va. "If the Iranians accept that uranium for civilian nuclear power, then there's no need for them to learn how to enrich."
Bush also reiterated his view that "Iran's a danger to peace," despite a recent U.S. intelligence estimate that found Iran halted a nuclear weapons program in 2003.
"My attitude hasn't changed toward Iran," he said. "If somebody had a weapons program, what's to say they couldn't start it up tomorrow?"
The construction of the Bushehr plant has been frequently delayed. Officials said the delays were a result of payment disputes, but many observers suggested Russia also was unhappy with Iran's resistance to international pressure to make its nuclear program more open and to assure the international community that it was not developing nuclear arms.
Russia announced last week that its construction disputes with Iran had been resolved and said fuel deliveries would begin about a half year before Bushehr was expected to go into service.
"All fuel that will be delivered will be under the control and guarantees of the International Atomic Energy Agency for the whole time it stays on Iranian territory," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement. "Moreover, the Iranian side gave additional written guarantees that the fuel will be used only for the Bushehr nuclear power plant."
The Iranians trumpeted Russia's decision to deliver fuel Monday as a victory for Iran, with Aghazadeh calling it "a message for the world."
Aghazadeh said the Bushehr plant was 95 percent complete and would begin operations "next year." He indicated the reactor needed 80 tons of nuclear fuel during the initial phase of operation, but did not provide further details.
Although at first opposed to Russian participation in building and supplying Bushehr, the United States and its allies agreed to remove any reference to the project in the first set of U.N. Security Council sanctions passed a year ago, in exchange for Moscow's support for those penalties. A draft that mentioned Bushehr was amended after Russia demanded that the language not prevent Moscow from conducting legitimate nuclear activities in Iran.
Washington has since publicly swung behind the project, in what diplomats say is an attempt to maintain Security Council unity, focusing on the fact that terms of the deal between Tehran and Moscow commit the Iranians to allow the Russians to retrieve all used reactor fuel for reprocessing. The U.S. fears that Iran might otherwise extract plutonium from the spent fuel to make atomic weapons.
But plutonium is not the only material that can be used to build a nuclear bomb. The U.S. is pushing the U.N. Security Council to pass a third round of sanctions against Iran for its refusal to suspend uranium enrichment.
The Russian Foreign Ministry reiterated its calls for Iran to halt uranium enrichment, saying the Russian deliveries mean Tehran has "no objective need" for its own enrichment facility.
Iranian officials have argued they need to develop alternative energy sources to prepare for when oil reserves run out. The government has announced plans to built six more reactors like Bushehr to produce 7,000 megawatts of electricity through nuclear energy by 2021.
Some analysts say Russia's willingness to resolve its dispute over Bushehr was related to the new U.S. intelligence report.
"This is more meaningful after the recent report by U.S. intelligence agencies," said Iranian political analyst Jalal Fayazi. "Shipment of nuclear fuel to Iran by Russia means Moscow has full confidence in the peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear program."
Others downplayed the impact of the National Intelligence Estimate.
"The U.S. report was not a decisive factor," said Anton Khlopkov, a nonproliferation expert with the Moscow-based PIR-Center think tank. "The decision was taken before it was released."
Although Russia has resisted drives to impose sanctions on Iran, it also repeatedly has urged Tehran to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency to resolve concerns over the nuclear program.
Associated Press writers Jim Heintz in Moscow and George Jahn in Vienna contributed to this report.