BUSHEHR, Iran -- Iran and Russia ignored U.S. objections and signed a nuclear fuel agreement Sunday that is key to bringing Tehran's first reactor online by mid-2006.
The long-delayed deal, signed at the heavily guarded Bushehr nuclear facility in southern Iran, dramatized President Bush's failure to persuade the Russians to curtail support for the Iranian nuclear program during his summit with Vladimir Putin on Thursday in Slovakia.
Under the deal, Russia will provide nuclear fuel to Iran, then take back the spent fuel, a step meant as a safeguard to ensure it cannot be diverted into a weapons program. Iran has also agreed to allow the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency, to monitor Bushehr and the fuel deliveries.
Iranian Vice President Gholamreza Aghazadeh and Russian Federal Atomic Energy Agency chief Alexander Rumyantsev signed the agreement. The signing, which was delayed by a day, came after the two senior officials toured the $800 million complex.
"Today, a very important development occurred, and that was the protocol on returning nuclear fuel, which we signed together. In the next few weeks many Russian technicians will arrive in Bushehr" to finish the plant, Rumyantsev said.
Both officials refused to discuss the details of shipping the nuclear fuel to Iran and the spent fuel back to Russia, but they insisted that the agreement conforms to international nuclear regulations.
"Iran observes all the regulations on the prohibition of the spread of nuclear weapons," Rumyantsev said.
The White House declined comment, as did the State Department.
Washington accuses Tehran of covertly trying to build a nuclear bomb, which Iran denies. Thursday's summit between Bush and Putin in Bratislava, Slovakia, had touched on American concerns over Russian support for Iran's nuclear program.
Putin has said he is sure Iran's intentions are merely to generate energy, not create weapons, and that Russian cooperation with Tehran would continue.
Mohammad Saeedi, deputy head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, said the Bush-Putin talks did not affect the agreement.
"Our talks [with the Russians] have been successful," Saeedi said.
Although Russia agreed to provide the fuel needed to run the Bushehr plant, it wanted the spent fuel back to prevent any possibility Tehran would extract plutonium from it -- which could be used to make an atomic bomb. Experts have estimated the plant could produce enough plutonium for 30 rudimentary atomic bombs a year.
Aghazadeh, the Iranian nuclear agency chief, said in the next 10 months, more experts and technicians would complete work on installation and assembly operations.
"Three months after that, there will be a test of the power plant and within six months after that, the 1,000-megawatt nuclear power plant will produce electricity," he said, meaning the plant would be operating next year.
Russia will deliver the fuel when the Bushehr plant "is ready for work and loading," Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Yakovenko told the Interfax news agency Sunday.
Ahead of the signing, Aghazadeh showed Rumyantsev the nuclear fuel storage house as well as the main part of the plant and the reactor.
"What I saw was much better and more than I had expected. Assembling operations in the past three to four months have been expedited," Rumyantsev said. "I can't say the situation is excellent, but it's very good."
The Bushehr plant, accessible only by a private road, overlooks the Persian Gulf, and its cream-colored dome is visible miles away. Soldiers maintain a 24-hour watch on roads leading up to the plant, manning anti-aircraft guns and supported by radar stations.
Iranian efforts to enrich uranium so it can produce enough of its own fuel to generate power have been a bigger concern in the international community than buying fuel from abroad because the enrichment process can be taken further to be used for warheads.
Britain, France and Germany are trying to secure an Iranian commitment to scrap enrichment plans in exchange for economic aid, technical support and backing for Tehran's efforts to join mainstream international organizations. Iran has suspended enrichment-related activities during the talks with the Europeans, which both sides have said were difficult, but insists the freeze will be brief.
Bush has expressed support for the European efforts. But documents being circulated among IAEA board members in Vienna, Austria, ahead of today's board meeting indicated Washington would try to increase pressure on Tehran by the next agency board meeting in June should the European talks fail.
Iran and Russia ignored U.S. objections and signed a nuclear fuel agreement key to bringing Tehran's first reactor online by mid-2006. Russia will provide nuclear fuel to Iran, then take back the spent fuel, a step meant to ensure it cannot be diverted into a weapons program.
Iran has agreed to let the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency -- the International Atomic Energy Agency -- monitor the Bushehr nuclear facility and the fuel deliveries.
Washington accuses Tehran of covertly trying to build a nuclear bomb, which Iran denies.