- The Washington Times - Friday, February 18, 2005

MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin said yesterday that Moscow will continue its nuclear cooperation with Iran and that he is convinced Tehran does not intend to develop atomic weapons.

Iran’s nuclear program is likely to be one of the top issues when Mr. Putin and President Bush meet Thursday in Slovakia.

Moscow has helped Iran build a nuclear reactor, a project that has been heavily criticized by the United States, which fears it could be used to help Tehran develop atomic weapons.

“The spread of nuclear weapons on the planet does not aid security, it does not strengthen security. The latest steps from Iran confirm that Iran does not intend to produce nuclear weapons and we will continue to develop relations in all spheres, including the peaceful use of nuclear energy,” Mr. Putin said at a meeting with Iranian National Security Council chief Hassan Rowhani.

Mr. Putin’s statement indicated that the chance of agreement with Washington on Iran is minimal.

“We hope that Iran will strictly adhere to all international agreements, in relation to Russia and the international community,” Mr. Putin said.

He also said that Iran’s leadership had invited him to visit, and he accepted. Russian news agencies said that no date has been set.

Bush administration officials reacted cautiously to Mr. Putin’s comments, apparently unwilling to be drawn into a public fight with the Russian leader ahead of next week’s summit.

A State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said U.S. officials were still trying to clarify exactly what Mr. Putin said.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters she believed Moscow shared the concerns in the West about Iran, having insisted on additional safeguards and conditions before activating the reactor.

“I think the behavior of everyone suggests that there are good reasons to be suspicious of [what] the Iranians are doing,” Miss Rice said.

A Russian analyst questioned whether Mr. Putin’s statement that Iran had no intention of making atomic weapons was based on actual information or on expediency.

“To my mind, it’s hard to find arguments to support Putin’s declaration,” said Anton Khlopkov, director of the PIR Center, which studies weapons issues. He noted that “Iran is potentially an important strategic partner for Russia … [with] a whole series of coinciding interests.”

Russia’s nuclear chief is expected in Iran next week to sign a protocol on returning spent nuclear fuel to Russia, the only remaining obstacle to the launch of the Russian-built reactor.

If the signing goes ahead as planned Feb. 26, it would pave the way for the deliveries of Russian nuclear fuel for the Bushehr reactor, which is set to begin operating in early 2006.

The protocol is aimed at reducing concerns that Iran could reprocess spent nuclear fuel from the $800 million Bushehr reactor to extract plutonium, which could be used in nuclear weapons.

Moscow says that having Iran ship its spent nuclear fuel back to Russia, along with international monitoring, will make any such project impossible.

Staff writer David R. Sands contributed to this story in Washington.

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