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MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia on Friday gave the clearest indication yet that it was ready to send uranium to fuel Iran's first atomic power station, upping the stakes in a diplomatic crisis surrounding Tehran's nuclear program.
Russia's state-run nuclear fuel producer said inspectors from the United Nations' nuclear watchdog would later this month start sealing nuclear fuel bound for the Bushehr plant, a major step to shipping the fuel to the Bushehr plant in Iran.
In a report on Iran issued on Thursday, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said it had "made arrangements to verify and seal the fresh fuel foreseen (for Bushehr) on November 26, before shipment of the fuel from Russia to Iran".
The inspectors will go to Russia's Novosibirsk Chemical Concentrate Plant, which is preparing the fuel. Plant officials said the inspectors would be working there through November 29.
"We are ready to provide IAEA specialists with all the conditions they need to do their work," Konstantin Grabelnikov, deputy head of the Novosibirsk Plant, said in a statement from Russian state-owned nuclear fuel producer TVEL.
Russia has so far given no concrete date for when it will send the nuclear fuel to Bushehr, but says it would be sent six months before the plant's repeatedly delayed start-up.
According to Russian forecasts, the reactor at the plant could be started up in 2008 and nuclear fuel would have to arrive at the plant six months before that.
Iran's ambassador to Russia on Friday said nuclear fuel deliveries to the Islamic Republic were a "matter of principle", and hoped Moscow would send them soon.
"We hope that promises we have been receiving from official Russian representatives on such an important issue ... will soon be carried out and realized," Ambassador Gholamreza Ansari said.
The diplomat was speaking at a news conference held simultaneously with Russia's announcement on fuel inspections.
In Iran, nuclear officials welcomed the fuel delivery developments.
"Russia has formally informed (the IAEA) that it is ready for the Bushehr nuclear fuel in Russia to be checked and sealed on November 26," IRNA quoted Mohammad Saeedi, deputy head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, as saying.
"This means, from a technical and legal point of view, the fuel for the Bushehr nuclear power plant is ready for transfer to Iran," he said.
The United States, Israel and key European Union nations suspect Iran is trying to build nuclear bombs.
But Russia, a veto-wielding member of the U.N. Security Council, says there is no evidence Tehran is seeking atomic weapons.
"Those offers we hear about the Bushehr AES from our Russian friends are encouraging for us," Ambassador Ansari said in Moscow.
"The issue of construction at Bushehr between Russian and Iranian societies is a matter of principle," Ansari said.
Tehran says a report by the IAEA this week has vindicated its repeated statements that its nuclear program was purely civilian and showed that there would be no basis for further discussion of it in the United Nations Security Council.
The IAEA report, released on Thursday, said Iran had made important strides toward transparency about its nuclear activity but had yet to resolve outstanding questions. It also said Iran had expanded uranium enrichment.
Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge, additional reporting by Fredrik Dahl in Tehran, Chris Baldwin in Moscow and Mark Heinrich in Vienna; editing by Elizabeth Piper