Russians to continue nuclear aid for Iran

Putin, rejecting U.S. concerns, also plans to visit Islamic republic

February 19, 2005|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

MOSCOW - Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, rejecting U.S. concerns that Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons, said yesterday that Russia would continue to assist the Islamic republic with nuclear and military projects.

He also said he would soon make a state visit to Iran, although the Kremlin announced no dates.

Putin's comments, made less than a week before he and President Bush are due to meet in Bratislava, Slovakia, threaten to complicate Bush's efforts to get an international consensus on how to deal with Iran's nuclear program, a key goal of his European trip that begins tomorrow.

The White House argues that Iran's nuclear program appears aimed at producing nuclear weapons, not just generating electricity, as Iran maintains.

Putin disagreed. "The latest steps taken by Iran have convinced us that Iran does not intend to produce nuclear arms," he said after meeting at the Kremlin with Hassan Rohani, the head of Iran's national security council.

"We will continue cooperation in all areas, including nuclear power," Putin said, adding that there would also be "military-technical" cooperation.

In Washington, Bush and his senior aides offered a muted response to Putin's assertions.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the architect of Bush's Russia policy, said that Russia has promised to provide fuel for Iran's Russian-built nuclear reactor at Bushehr only if Tehran agrees to inspections and promises to return the spent fuel so it can't be used to manufacture a nuclear or radiological weapon.

"I think the behavior of everyone suggests that there are good reasons to be suspicious of what the Iranians are doing," Rice said at an appearance with Dutch Foreign Minister Bernard Bot.

The European Union is negotiating with Iran over nuclear issues, and the International Atomic Energy Agency also is scrutinizing Iran's activities.

Russia has made it clear that it will proceed with assisting the Iranians, whatever reservations others might express.

Two days after Thursday's Bush-Putin summit, the head of Russia's nuclear agency is to travel to Tehran to sign agreements to supply nuclear fuel to the Bushehr reactor. The fuel shipments could make the plant operational early next year.

American-Russian relations have become more tense in recent days. On Thursday, the United States protested Russian plans to sell surface-to-air missiles to Syria.

Bush and Putin are expected to sign an agreement in Bratislava that would limit sales of portable, shoulder-launched missile systems, colloquially known as MANPADS, for man-portable air defense systems.

Russian officials say their plan to sell Strelets missiles to Syria doesn't violate the agreement because Strelets is truck-mounted and can't be retooled or refitted to be shoulder-fired.

Bush emphasized his close ties to Putin in an interview yesterday with Russia's Itar-Tass news agency. Bush and Rice have staked much on building close personal ties with Putin.

"We're friends," he said, adding, "We've got the framework for a good strategic relationship, which is important."

Bush said he would travel May 9 to Moscow for celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II.

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