Russia and Iran reached an agreement Thursday on a schedule for finishing construction of the Bushehr nuclear plant, which plays a central role in the international tensions over Iran's nuclear program, Russian news agencies reported.

The reports cited the head of plant contractor Atomstroiexport, Sergei Shmatko, as saying details of the timetable would be released later this month.

The United States and other critics have long protested construction of the US$1 billion plant, saying it would give Iran cover for developing a nuclear weapons program.

Construction at the plant has been sporadically delayed amid disputes between Iran and Russia over payment, fuel delivery and other issues. But Russia has remained opposed to a U.S.-led push for international sanctions against Iran for allegedly seeking to develop nuclear weapons.

"The difficulties with the Iranian contracts have been settled," Shmatko was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency. He did not give details of the completion plans, but said that fuel would be delivered to Iran about half a year before it is needed to operate the plant, according to Interfax.

Shmatko's announcement came about an hour before Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki was to meet in Moscow with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov.

Although Russia has resisted drives to impose sanctions on Iran, it also repeatedly has urged Tehran to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency to resolve concerns over the nuclear program.

Shmatko on Thursday raised the prospect of creating a Russian-Iranian joint venture "to ensure security" at the Bushehr plant, according to the RIA-Novosti agency.

That could indicate Russian interest in ensuring that enriched uranium at the plant is not stolen or diverted. Depleted fuel rods also could be reprocessed into plutonium.