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Thu 7 Feb 2008 02:02 AM

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Iran rocket sparks Russian fears

Russia expresses concerns about the real nature of Tehran's atomic programme after test launch.

Russia said on Wednesday Iran's test launch of a rocket raised suspicions about the real nature of Tehran's atomic programme, in what could signal a hardening of its stance towards the Islamic Republic.

Iran launched a rocket on Monday designed to carry its first locally-made research satellite next year, showing the country's advances in ballistics at a time when Western powers are already wary it may be developing a nuclear weapon.

"Any movement in terms of creating such a potential weapon naturally worries us and others," Interfax news agency quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Losyukov as telling reporters.

"All the more so since it creates suspicion towards Iran about its possible desire to create a nuclear weapon," he said. "Rockets of such range are one of the components of such a weapons system. Of course this raises concern".

Russia has previously said there is no evidence Tehran is trying to make nuclear weapons. It has watered down Western attempts to impose punitive sanctions and is supplying uranium fuel to Iran's Bushehr nuclear power station.

The unusually forthright comments on the rocket launch may indicate a hardening of Russia's stance.

The US, the Islamic Republic's arch foe, called the rocket test "unfortunate" and said it would only further isolate Tehran from the international community.

The West fears Iran, the world's fourth largest oil producer, is trying to master nuclear technology so it can build nuclear bombs.

Russia has tried to push Tehran to be more open about its nuclear programme but has warned the West against pushing Iran's leaders into a corner.

Iran insists its nuclear programme is peaceful. Iranian officials were not immediately available for comment on the remarks by the Russian deputy minister.

Earlier, Iran hit back at US criticism of the rocket launch.

"We are not responsible for the concerns of others (about the rocket). But we also see no need for concerns," government spokesman Gholamhossein Elham told reporters on Tuesday.

The five permanent members of the UN Security Council - Britain, China, France, Russia and the US - plus Germany are discussing new sanctions against Iran.

The US says Russia and China have tried to weaken the sanctions package.

Moscow has tried to use a mixture of persuasion and warnings to push Iran to be more open about its nuclear programme.

President Vladimir Putin visited Tehran in October, the first trip to Iran by a Russian leader since Josef Stalin in 1943.

Iran, which refuses to recognise Israel, has an array of medium-range missiles. It says US military bases in the Gulf.

Iran's president has often predicted the demise of Israel but insists the Islamic Republic is not a threat to any country. US officials have accused Iran of aiming to equip its missiles with nuclear warheads. (Reuters)

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