MOSCOW Russia has no chance of finishing Iran's first nuclear power station before autumn 2008, a year behind schedule, a Russian subcontractor helping to build the plant told RIA news agency on Wednesday.
Russia has used the Bushehr nuclear plant as a lever in relations with Tehran which chilled this year after a row over missed payments for building the plant in southwest Iran.
Completion of Bushehr is likely to trigger a sharp reaction from the United States, which fears Iran's nuclear program would be strengthened by the delivery of Russian nuclear fuel.
Atomstroiexport, the Russian state firm building the plant, said a shortage of payments from Iran was undermining confidence in the Bushehr project.
"Today we can say for sure that to launch the Bushehr nuclear plant this autumn is unrealistic," said Ivan Istomin, the head of a subcontractor called Energoprogress that is working for Atomstroiexport, RIA reported.
"A realistic time frame for starting the reactor... is moving to autumn 2008," he said.
Russian arms sales and nuclear cooperation with Iran have strained relations with Washington, which suspects Tehran of using seeking to develop atomic weapons under the cover of its civilian nuclear program.
Moscow says Tehran does not have the capability to make nuclear weapons. But some senior officials are wary of relations with Iran and say Russia's interests are not served by Iran gaining nuclear weapons.
Iran says it has a right to develop its civilian nuclear sector and that its nuclear program is not aimed at developing nuclear arms.
Mohammad Saeedi, deputy head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, and Javad Vaeedi, Iran's deputy nuclear negotiator, were in Moscow on Wednesday for talks, an Iranian nuclear official told Reuters.
A Russian nuclear official said the talks would focus on "efforts to stabilize the situation around Bushehr."
Russia has said it will stick to the project, worth about $1 billion. But Atomstroiexport said Iran was still paying just a fraction of the $25 million a month needed to finish the plant.
"Confidence in the project has been undermined," said Atomstroiexport spokeswoman Irina Yesipova. "It is an unstable situation where there are lots of announcements but no money."
Iranian officials insist they have made payments on time and say Moscow is delaying because of Western pressure.
"There is just not sufficient financing and that has influenced confidence, the confidence of the Russian side and Russian subcontractors towards the Bushehr project and towards Iran," Yesipova said.
Russia in February delayed the launch of the plant -- planned for September 2007 -- citing payment problems. Russia also delayed sending nuclear fuel to Bushehr as it had earlier planned for March 2007.
Russia has traditionally been seen as Tehran's closest big-power ally but senior Russian officials have expressed exasperation with Tehran's negotiating tactics.
They cite the more extreme pronouncements of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has called for wiping Israel from the world's map.
(Additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Tehran and Mark Heinrich in Vienna)