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Russia Calls for Transparent Iranian Nuclear Program

Russian President Vladimir Putin says Iran's nuclear program must become more transparent. But he says there is no evidence that Tehran is seeking to develop a nuclear bomb. He spoke at a Moscow news conference with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is on his first official visit to Russia as head of state. VOA Moscow Correspondent Peter Fedynsky has details.

The leaders of Russia and France said they discussed a number of issues, including Kosovo, Syria, Lebanon and Iran's nuclear program. The Iranian nuclear issue was the only one they spoke about publicly in detail. Russian President Vladimir Putin said Tehran must be encouraged to make its nuclear program more transparent, but he indicated the program does not seem to pose a threat.

Mr. Putin says no data suggests Iran is seeking to develop nuclear weapons, and therefore there is no reason to believe that Iran has such plans. He says Russia shares the view that all of Iran's programs should be made absolutely clear.

Mr. Putin said he and Mr. Sarkozy agreed that Iran is taking steps to achieve transparency, adding that Russia will continue to work cooperatively on the issue in the United Nations Security Council.

But Moscow opposes French and other Western calls for increased international sanctions against Iran to prevent development of a nuclear weapon.

President Sarkozy said Mr. Putin's statement is important, coming a few days before the Russian leader's visit to Iran.

The French president says it appears the Iranians are willing to cooperate.

But he said France and Russia do not have the same view of what is happening in Iran.

Both presidents spoke of increased Franco-Russian economic cooperation and investment opportunities in each other's markets.

President Putin said trade between the two countries increased in 2006 by more than 37 percent over the previous year, reaching $13.5 billion. Mr. Putin said trade this year is even better $7 billion in the first six months.

The two countries hope to further expand relations in aviation and automobile manufacturing, space, telecommunications and transportation infrastructure. President Putin said Russia is seeking to develop a launch complex for its Soyuz spacecraft at the French Space Center in Guiana. The two leaders also discussed energy cooperation, including nuclear power and French participation in the development of Russia's large Shtokman gas field.

The Russians expressed interest in simplified French visa procedures, and Mr. Putin highlighted his country's efforts to improve border controls to protect against illegal immigrants and drug trafficking from the East.

The French president acknowledged that he intends to visit Memorial, a non-governmental organization (NGO) in Moscow that has been critical of Russian military activity in Chechnya. Mr. Putin said he does not oppose the visit.

Russia has faced international criticism for closing a number of NGOs. Mr. Putin's praise for Memorial was mixed with criticism.

He says it is good that organizations indicate the mistakes of those in power. But he also said such organizations should not be used by one government against another to pursue foreign policy objectives.

Mr. Putin said Memorial belongs to an official council of NGOs that advise the government.

Looking toward Russia's March presidential election, Mr. Sarkozy invited the Kremlin leader to visit France during his first trip abroad after he leaves the Russian presidency.