MOSCOW, Oct 15, 2005 (AFP): Russia and the United States feuded openly Saturday over Iran's nuclear programme, with Moscow defending Tehran's right to enrich uranium for atomic energy while visiting US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Iran could not be trusted with the process.
Speaking to reporters after discussing the issue, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Rice staked out starkly differing positions on the specific question of whether the Islamic republic should be allowed to enrich uranium for any purpose.
"All members of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) have this right," Lavrov stated, adding that Russia had seen no evidence to support US claims that Iran sought to develop nuclear weapons under the cover of a civilian nuclear energy program.
Rice retorted: "It is not a question of rights... the NPT doesn't come only with rights but also with obligations. This is not an issue of rights but of whether or not the fuel cycle can be trusted in Iran."
While their comments only reiterated the well-known and differing positions of Russia and the United States on the Iran nuclear question, the spectacle of Lavrov and Rice arguing over the specific point of the enrichment process was an unusual occurrence and underscored their split.
The United States suspects Iran may use its fledgling nuclear power program, being developed with help from Russia, to hide development of nuclear weapons and has sought to have the issue taken up by the UN Security Council which could impose sanctions on the Islamic state.
Russia says it shares US opposition to Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, but insists there is no evidence that Tehran was trying to do so -- indeed that it could not do so even if it wanted to, using the Russian technology it is using to build its first nuclear power station at Bushehr.
"Iran must continue to cooperate with the IAEA so that any questions that arise can be fully clarified," Lavrov said, adding that the NPT regime must "under no conditions" be violated.
Earlier this year, Iran acquiesced to international demands for tighter controls on the fuel rods used to generate nuclear energy, signing an agreement with Russia under which Russia would deliver the fuel and then recover the spent fuel rods under international supervision.
Rice reiterated the US view that oil-rich Iran "needs no civilian nuclear program", but gave some ground by acknowledging that if it was to have one the nuclear fuel repatriation agreement with Russia "is a reliable way to make certain that there are no problems with the fuel cycle."
The US ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, on Friday reiterated US accusations against Iran, but voiced hope that Washington's concerns could still be resolved through diplomatic pressure.
"I think that the Iranians have been pursuing a nuclear weapons programme for up to 18 years," Bolton told the BBC while on a trip to London. "They have engaged in concealment and deception and they've engaged in threats before."
Rice held talks Friday in Paris with French President Jacques Chirac and a spokesman for the French leader said afterwards that everyone agreed that possession by Iran of a nuclear weapon would be "unacceptable."
But Chirac said that "it is necessary to continue the way of dialogue started by Germany, Britain and France in close coordination with Russia, in complete openness with the US," to resolve concerns about Tehran's nuclear plans.
At a meeting last month, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN's nuclear watchdog, passed a resolution that said Iran was in "non-compliance" with the NPT -- Russia, China and a number of other countries abstained -- laying the groundwork for the case to be sent to the UN Security Council.