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Moscow offers olive branch to Washington over Iran nuke deal

MOSCOW, March 17 (AFP) - Moscow offered an olive branch to Washington on Wednesday over its contentious nuclear cooperation with Iran ahead of a pivotal visit to the United States by top Russian ministers seeking financial aid.

Russian Atomic Energy Minister Yevgeny Adamov told journalists he had personally ordered a leading Moscow nuclear research center to cut all its lucrative ties with Iran.

The Nikiet laboratory is one of 10 sites hit by US sanctions for allegedly peddling sensitive technology know-how to Tehran. The penalties were imposed amid increasing friction over Russia's lucrative hi-tech ties with Iran, including construction of a reactor at Bushehr in the Gulf.

Russia hopes to soothe these and other foreign affairs differences when Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov takes a high-powered delegation including Adamov to Washington next week.

They hope to return with a crucial deal to bail Russia out of its financial hole, but analysts see such an agreement as incompatible with Russia's increasingly independent foreign affairs stance.

Adamov denied that any of the 10 targeted Russian centers had broken international laws prohibiting the sale of sensitive technologies to non-nuclear states. But he said he wanted to ease US worries nonetheless.

"To completely eliminate any misunderstandings with the Americans, I told Nikiet: You will no longer cooperate with that country," Adamov said. "It was an extravagant decision on my part."

Adamov added he expects the United States to return the favor by lifting the sanctions against the prestigious nuclear research center.

"I do not ask for any money in return," Adamov said. "I am telling the Americans that if you really have a normal approach to sanctions, that I have led this institute away from all contacts with Iran. So now, take off the sanctions."

Nikiet falls under the jurisdiction of the Russian atomic energy ministry and was once headed by Adamov.

The minister said Nikiet did work on a contract to develop and build a research nuclear reactor in Iran but that the deal eventually fell through and no such site was ever constructed. "We shelved the contract," Adamov said.

He said he urged Nikiet and a linked research institute, the Mendeleyev University, to cease its Iran operations in September.

"If the Americans are growing concerned about certain things, we can now eliminate each others' concerns in this way," he said.

The United States is worried that Russian wants to expand its nuclear cooperation with Iran and has opposed Moscow's decision to develop a nuclear reactor at Bushehr. The contract is worth more than 700 million dollars to Russia.

Russia is currently completing one nuclear reactor at the site and is being courted by Iran to build three more but Adamov said such cooperation did not violate international agreements.

"We will try to expand our activity in Iran to the extent that this does not contradict our international obligations, including our non-proliferation obligations," Adamov said.

US officials cited by The New York Times said they were pleased with Adamov's initiative but did not exclude the possibility that Russia was still cooperating with Iran.

"It would help the overall tone of our relationship," one US administration official told the paper. "Adamov is taking the initiative and appears to have Primakov's support. But we still have a paper to negotiate."

Adamov said he hoped the United States would formally lift sanctions against the two institutes following his negotiations with Washington officials later this month.


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