#4 - JRL 7167
US pressures Russia over Iran nuclear cooperation
By Richard Balmforth
MOSCOW, May 5 (Reuters) - The United States on Monday held high-level talks with Russia on Iran, aimed at persuading Moscow to rethink its nuclear cooperation with the Islamic republic which Washington says is trying to develop nuclear weapons.
U.S. Undersecretary of State John Bolton met foreign and atomic energy ministry officials in a fresh effort to get Moscow to curtail cooperation in Iran's Bushehr power station project and rein in Russian scientists who Washington says are clandestinely supplying Tehran with nuclear technology.
With the Iraq war winding down, officials in U.S. President George W. Bush's administration say they are now focused on the dangers of nuclear proliferation coming from Iran and North Korea, bracketed together in Bush's so-called "axis of evil."
"We have believed for some time that the Iranians were pursuing nuclear weapons," a senior U.S. administration official told journalists in Moscow ahead of Bolton's talks.
"Although an Iranian nuclear weapons capability may be years down the road, time moves quickly and they may have a lot of activity going on that we don't know about," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Iran says its nuclear ambitions are limited to producing electricity and has allowed International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors to visit several of its nuclear facilities.
Russia has until recently stoutly defended its programme to help Tehran build a 1,000-megawatt nuclear plant at Bushehr.
It says it is providing Iran only with civilian equipment, with fuel to be shipped back to Russia for reprocessing, and has said Iran is incapable of building nuclear weapons.
But in March Atomic Energy Minister Alexander Rumyantsev appeared to backtrack saying Moscow could not judge whether Iran was secretly developing nuclear arms as Washington alleged.
Bolton was holding talks with Rumyantsev and Georgy Mamedov, a deputy foreign ministry, chiefly on the Iran question.
He also discussed Washington's nuclear standoff with North Korea with Russia's top Korean specialist, deputy foreign minister Alexander Losyukov. Washington wants Pyongyang, who it says has admitted to having nuclear arms, to dismantle its nuclear programme.
BURYING IRAQ DIFFERENCES
Talks in Moscow took place with both sides trying to bury differences over the U.S.-led war on Iraq that Russia opposed.
But President Vladimir Putin, while wanting to keep his close partnership with Bush on track, has continued to oppose the U.S. view that U.N. sanctions on Iraq should now be lifted.
It is not clear to what extent, if at all, he is prepared to give ground on the question of nuclear cooperation with Iran.
The issue has rebounded on relations in the past, with the U.S. Congress three years ago passing a bill which effectively rules out further U.S. funding to Russia's cash-strapped space agency, Rosaviakosmos, until Moscow proves it is not assisting Iranian ballistic missile programmes.
The U.S. official suggested Moscow may, however, be having a change-of-heart. "The Russian view before was that there is no Iranian clandestine nuclear weapons programme, but I think that view has changed," he said, referring to Rumyantsev's statement and comments by other Russian officials.
He said Washington wanted Moscow to focus on ways of curbing the activities of Russian scientists and technicians who, he said, were passing on nuclear know-how to the Iranians clandestinely without the Russian government's knowledge.