Russian President Vladimir Putin said Friday he is convinced Iran is not seeking to develop nuclear weapons.  His statement comes less than a week before his meeting with President Bush in Slovakia, where the subject of Iran's nuclear ambitions will likely be discussed. 

Mr. Putin showed support for Tehran at a meeting in the Kremlin with Iran's National Security Council head, Hassan Rowhani.

The Russian leader says recent steps taken by Iran have assured him the country is not seeking to produce nuclear weapons, as the United States has long suspected.

Mr. Putin was apparently referring to Iran's announcement on Thursday that it will agree to return spent nuclear fuel from a nuclear power plant that Russia is building in Iran.

A senior Russian official will go to Iran next week to sign the accord on the fuel, which came after long negotiations between the two countries.

Russia's nuclear cooperation with Iran has strained relations between the United States and Russia for almost a decade.

Washington has long maintained the nuclear plant at Bushehr could help Tehran make weapons. 

One key concern was that Iranian engineers might reprocess spent fuel to extract plutonium that can be used in nuclear weapons.

Diplomatic pressure from the United States led Russia to insist that Iran return all used fuel from Bushehr, something Iran initially resisted.

Next week's agreement is expected to pave the way for the plant to begin operating early next year.

Earlier this week a senior U.S. diplomat in Moscow said Russia appears to understand that Iran has misled the international community about its nuclear program in the past. And the United States says it may still take the issue before the United Nations Security Council.