by DEBKAfile

While US president Barack Obama told the media early Tuesday, Feb. 10, that the US would pursue direct talks with Iran, an official Russian spokesman said his government would complete Iran’s nuclear reactor at Bushehr within three months.DEBKAfile‘s sources report that Obama is planning on the dialogue with Tehran beginning in late June.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad replied by welcoming talks based on mutual respect provided the changes in Washington were “fundamental and not just tactical.”

The three statements hung over Israel’s general election Tuesday, as 5.2 million eligible voters turned out to choose a prime minister capable of military action to halt Iran race toward a nuclear bomb.

Despite the talk in Washington and Moscow of eased strains in their relations, the Kremlin has clearly come down on the side of giving the Iranian leaders a strong hand in their coming dialogue with the Obama administration. They will come to the table without giving up uranium enrichment in the face of UN sanctions, with long-range ballistic missiles capable of placing a satellite in orbit and having acquired a key element for its nuclear program, a functioning reactor at Bushehr capable of producing processed plutonium.

Talking to reporters, early Tuesday, President Obama said: “In the coming months, we will be looking for openings… to start sitting across the table face to face” with Iran. He stressed that the administration has deep concerns about Iranian policy, citing Iran’s support for Hizballah and Hamas, its “bellicose” language to Israel and its pursuit of a nuclear weapon.

The US must use all the tools at its disposal in dealing with Iran and that “includes diplomacy,” he said.

Iran must understand that the U.S. finds Iranian actions such as funding of terrorist groups unacceptable, said Obama. But he added that “there’s a possibility, at least, of a relationship of mutual respect and progress.”

DEBKAfile‘s exclusive Washington sources add: Following internal White House deliberations, Obama decided that his talks with Iranian leaders would not begin before late June, by which time the results of Iran’s presidential election earlier that month would be known. The incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will be running for a second term against the reformist leader Muhammed Khatami.

(The tactics the US president has charted for these talks were laid out in detail for the first time in the latest DEBKA-Net-Weekly issue #383 on Feb. 6.)

A few hours before Obama spoke, Alexander Maryasov, director of one of the Russian foreign ministry’s Asia departments, said: “I want to stress once again the readiness of the Russian side to complete the construction of the Bushehr nuclear plant within the set timeframe. I believe that after the shipment of nuclear fuel for the electric power plant took place last month, the Iranian side should have no doubts on this score.”

DEBKAfile‘s military sources disclose that Russia delivered 82 metric tons of nuclear fuel to power the plant in the second half of January. This is enough both to fuel the manufacture of electricity and of plutonium.

Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization said earlier that the Bushehr plant was 94.8% complete. Foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki said it was due to be operational in the first half of 2009.