TEHRAN Russia's energy minister pledged Sunday a quick completion of Iran's first nuclear power station, two weeks after announcing the latest delay, but refrained from giving a specific time for its launch.
The comment from Sergei Shmatko came after talks with Iranian Oil Minister Massoud Mirkazemi and as Iran's government announced plans to build 10 new uranium enrichment plants, in a major expansion of its disputed nuclear program.
In mid-November, Shmatko said that technical issues would prevent engineers from starting up the reactor at Bushehr -- being built by Russian state contractor Atomstroyexport -- by the end of the year as previously planned.
Moscow, which is under Western pressure to distance itself from Tehran over its nuclear activities, stressed at the time that politics had nothing to do with the delay.
Russia's nuclear chief Sergei Kiriyenko said in February that the Bushehr launch was scheduled for 2009.
Western powers suspect Iran is seeking to build nuclear bombs. Iran, the world's fifth-largest oil exporter, denies this and says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.
Sunday, Shmatko declined to comment on Iran's plan to build 10 new plants and was upbeat on Bushehr which he said met all requirements of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
"We have done our best to complete the project. Now we are testing the system in full compliance with security requirements of IAEA. I'm surprised how well the tests are going," he said.
When pressed on a specific time for the start he said: "I don't want to guess. What if we have a technical problem and will need a week to fix it?"
Iran's state broadcaster IRIB quoted Shmatko as saying that Bushehr had become "a symbol of cooperation between Iran and Russia and nobody dares to hurt it."
"The quick completion of the Bushehr power plant is the most important issue for both the Iranian and Russian atomic energy organizations," he was quoted as saying.
Shmatko also said he discussed with Mirkazemi joint projects in liquefied natural gas, as Russia is also seeking to become a major LNG player.
IRIB reported the two ministers discussed oil prices and crude output by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and non-OPEC producers, but Shmatko did not comment to reporters on it.
Iran is a member of OPEC, which has repeatedly sought closer cooperation with non-OPEC member Russia. Last year, Russia said it could consider cutting output with OPEC but later changed its mind and said it had never promised anything to the cartel.
(Reporting by Reza Derakhshi and Vladimir Soldatkin; writing by Fredrik Dahl and Dmitry Zhdannikov; editing by Robin Pomeroy)