MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia has delivered the first shipment of nuclear fuel to Iran's Bushehr atomic power station, a step both Moscow and Washington said should convince Tehran to shut down its disputed uranium enrichment programme.
But a senior Iranian official said his country would under no circumstances halt its efforts to enrich uranium -- fuel it says it needs for other power plants but which foreign powers fear could be used in a nuclear bomb.
Western nations led by the United States had urged Russia not to deliver fuel to Bushehr, a plant in southern Iran that Russian engineers are building under a $1 billion contract.
In a change of tactics apparently the result of consultations between Moscow and Washington, the White House signalled that the arrival of the fuel could help international efforts to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions.
"If the Russians are willing to do that, which I support, then the Iranians do not need to learn how to enrich," U.S. President George W. Bush said on Monday.
"If the Iranians accept that uranium for a civilian nuclear power plant, then there's no need for them to learn how to enrich," Bush said during a visit to Virginia.
Russia had for months delayed delivering fuel to Bushehr, Iran's first nuclear power station, citing payment problems.
Analysts say the true reasons were disquiet in Moscow about the radical style of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the sensitivity of shipping uranium to a country under international sanctions over its nuclear programme.
In a statement on Monday, Russia's foreign ministry said the project was back on track: "On Dec. 16 the delivery of fuel began from Russia to ... Bushehr."
Russian officials said the final shipment of fuel would arrive in February next year, allowing the plant to start operating six months later.
Iran confirmed the first batch of about 80 tonnes of uranium fuel rods had been delivered.
But a senior Iranian official told Reuters the arrival of fuel would not change the enrichment programme. "There is no talk of halting enrichment. Nothing is related to freezing enrichment," the official said.
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.
But the project has for years caused friction between Moscow and Western powers pressing for restrictions on economic cooperation with Iran -- especially in a sector as sensitive as nuclear power.
In its statement, the Russian foreign ministry echoed Washington, saying the delivery of fuel to Bushehr made Iran's own enrichment programme redundant.
"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 programme," said the statement.
The U.N. Security Council has imposed two rounds of sanctions on Iran for its refusal to halt enrichment.
Iran's greater openness with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors this year made it diplomatically easier for Moscow to deliver the fuel, said Russian security analyst Vladimir Orlov, president of the PIR Center think tank.
A U.S. intelligence report this month, which said Iran had halted a nuclear weapons programme in 2003, was also a factor in Moscow's thinking, he said.
"There are no facts proving that Iran is working on a (military) nuclear programme. Neither the IAEA, nor Russia, nor even the United States have such facts," said Orlov.