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Bush and Putin make limited headway over Iran's nuclear program
June 1, 2003

Russia and the United States made only limited headway over Iran as President Vladimir Putin firmly defended his nuclear cooperation with the country during talks with US counterpart George W. Bush.

The otherwise feel-good informal summit between Bush and Putin in the Russian leader's native city was their first direct meeting since a bitter falling-out over the war against Iraq.

The two leaders later told a joint press conference Sunday that they made some progress in their dispute over Iran and Putin stressed that Moscow was as concerned as Washington about Tehran's nuclear program.

"The positions of Russia and the US on the issue are much closer than they seem," said Putin.

"We do not need to be convinced of the fact that there should be no proliferation of weapons of mass destruction," he said.

"President Bush and I have a full understanding on this," he said.

But moments later Putin defended Russia's decision to build Iran's first nuclear reactor -- a project that was first launched by Germany some two decades ago but then abandoned under pressure from the United States.

"On Iran, we are against the pretext of using the nuclear program as a lever in unfair business competition against us," said Putin, before quickly adding that Moscow would work with Washington "in order to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction everywhere, including Iran."

Bush for his part said cautiously that both sides were "concerned" about Iran's nuclear ambitions.

"Russia and the United States have mutual concerns about the advanced Iranian nuclear program," Bush said.

"I appreciate Vladimir Putin's understanding of the issue and his willingness to work with me and others to solve this potential problem," the US president added.

The two leaders seemed at ease with each other as they began their meeting in the elegant Konstantinovsky Palace, a tsarist mansion restored in time for the 300th anniversary celebrations of Putin's native city.

But US officials warned ahead of the talks that Russia's nuclear and military cooperation with Iran would -- as at previous summits -- feature highly on the agenda.

The sparring over Iran has continued for years despite Putin's decision to support Bush's "war on terror."

It complicated a historic meeting between the two leaders in May last year in Moscow when they signed their first strategic arms reduction treaty since the Cold War era.

And Moscow irritated Washington still further last year by announcing that it was looking to expand its Iranian nuclear program by building up to five new reactors in a nation identified by Bush as a member of an "axis of evil."

Russian officials have since issued conflicting signals about whether those new reactors would be built.

Moscow added an unexpected twist to the dispute on Friday, when the country's atomic energy minister invited the United States to join Russia in Bushehr's construction.

The United States flatly rejected the offer, with State Department official saying that "no country" should be assisting Iran in this regard.

And a senior US diplomat said after the summit Sunday that Bushehr remains the main irritant in Washington's ties with Moscow.

"We think that it would be wise for Russia to go slow on the Bushehr project until the wider Iranian nuclear program is more clearly understood," the US diplomat said.

"Our belief is that any proliferation, coming from any source, should be stopped."

However Russia gave no indication that it was prepared to halt construction of Bushehr -- with Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov sidestepping a direct question on the possibility.

Ivanov stressed that "we have no agreement with Iran that says Bushehr can only be built if Russia signs an additional protocol" with the UN agency that monitors non-proliferation issues.

Washington is pushing hard to sign up to the additional IAEA protocol and Iran has hinted that it may do so.

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