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Russian Visit by Iranian Nuclear Chief Stirs Controversy - 2003-06-30

The head of Iran's nuclear program is in Russia for talks expected to focus on the two countries' cooperation on atomic energy. The Iranian vice president, who also heads the country's nuclear energy program, is scheduled to spend three days in Moscow, meeting with a number of senior Russian officials.

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and Atomic Energy Minister Alexander Rumyantsev are among the officials the Iranian vice president Gholamreza Aghazadeh is due to meet.

In the days leading up to the visit, Russia has come under increasing pressure to rethink its policy of building a nuclear power plant for Iran at Bushehr.

Officials in the West fear that Tehran could take advantage of Russian expertise and material to develop a clandestine nuclear weapons program. Iran strongly denies any such goal, and Moscow has long maintained that the cooperation is strictly civilian in nature.

But Moscow has been pressing Iran to sign an additional protocol to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which would oblige Tehran to allow for tighter inspections of its nuclear program sites by U.N. inspectors.

The continued concern in the West stems from the fact that Moscow has not given a clear indication as to whether it will halt the Bushehr project if Iran fails to sign on to the additional protocol.

If the latest reported comments from Russian officials on Iran are any indication, it would appear Moscow continues to favor construction.

Russia's Itar-Tass news agency quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Yuri Fedotov as expressing satisfaction with the level of cooperation between Iran and the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency.

Mr. Fedotov said the recent IAEA summit on Iran, at which Russian officials say Iran agreed to accept inspections, would help speed up cooperation between Iran and the Vienna-based nuclear watchdog, thereby creating a new basis for Russia's cooperation with Iran.

Recently, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been promoting the view that Moscow's position on Iran's nuclear program is closer to America's than it might seem. Mr. Putin says Russia shares the United States' concerns and does not want to see Iran develop nuclear weapons.

He also has said Russia will base its relations with all countries, including Iran, on the basis of their relations with the IAEA.