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Putin rejects U.S. concerns over Iran's nuclear program

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

He also said he'd 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 Sunday.

The White House has argued 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 Rowhani, 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, noted 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 intends to proceed with assisting the Iranians, whatever reservations others might express.

Two days after next 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 contend that their plan to sell Strelets missiles to Syria doesn't violate that agreement because the Strelets is truck-mounted and can't be retooled or refitted to be shoulder-fired. Some analysts dispute that.

In the last 18 months, Putin has meddled openly in Ukraine's presidential election, and has curbed democracy in Russia by centralizing power, marginalizing political opponents and controlling television and radio.

Russia, for its part, complains about American military bases in nearby Central Asia and accused the United States of meddling in Ukraine.

Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., introduced a congressional resolution Friday calling on Bush to seek Russia's suspension from the G-8 group of major industrialized nations until Moscow commits to democratic rule.

"In 2003 I warned of a `creeping coup' in Russia against the forces of democracy and market capitalism. ... The coup is no longer creeping; it is galloping," McCain said.

Bush emphasized his close ties to Putin in an interview Friday 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 announced that he would travel to Moscow on May 9 for celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II.

Moscow's signing of the fuel-supply agreement with Tehran has been put off time and again, mostly due to disputes over costs and Iran's reluctance to agree to return all the spent fuel.

American diplomats have pressed Moscow to drop its cooperation on the $900 million Bushehr facility, which they believe will be used as part of a secret Iranian project to develop nuclear weapons.

Russia has resisted, pointing to safeguards and inspection protocols conducted by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Russia, with an eye toward a lucrative overseas market for its nuclear expertise, has said in the past that it hopes to build more nuclear plants in Iran.

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(Strobel reported from Washington.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Vladimir Putin

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