White House urged to maintain freeze on nuclear weapons tests

Friday, May 23, 2003

WASHINGTON -- Russia is asking the Bush administration to maintain a U.S. freeze on testing as it considers full-scale development of battlefield nuclear weapons.

A senior Russian official told reporters Thursday his government also intends to develop new types of weapons, which he said probably would not be nuclear-armed and certainly would not be aimed at the United States.

Russia's aim is to counter new threats and challenges, and the weapons would not be made on a large scale, the official said without elaboration.

The briefing at the Russian Embassy followed talks by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, CIA director George Tenet, and Condoleezza Rice, President Bush's national security adviser, and a short session with Bush.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Moscow was determined to accelerate the warming of relations with the United States. He said the "crisis" caused by disagreement over war with Iraq was over, and that Russia had proposed ways the countries could cooperate on technology to defend against nuclear attack.

Bush is to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg, Russia, on June 1. Setting the stage, Putin sent a note to Bush saying Russia was interested in expanding cooperation, according to the Kremlin.

There is "much more substance uniting us than issues over where disagreement remains," Putin said in the letter that Ivanov delivered to Bush.

Sales to Iran

But the two sides disagree sharply over Russian technology sales to Iran.

The United States is concerned that Iran is using the technology in a nuclear weapons program. But the Russian official said his country was helping Iran to develop a lightwater reactor, similar to the type that the United States helped North Korea with, by providing a half-million tons of fuel for eight years.

He said spent fuel rods were being returned to Russia by Iran as a precaution.

Bush and Putin are expected to mark approval by the U.S. and Russian parliaments of a treaty to reduce their arsenals of long-range nuclear warheads by two-thirds over 10 years.

At the same time, the Bush administration says it wants to conduct research on low-yield nuclear weapons and "bunker busters" that target underground military facilities or arsenals.

Congressional Democrats are trying to block the programs, arguing they would undermine U.S. efforts to curb the spread of nuclear weapons and spread a new arms race.

Republicans have countered that the administration was interested only in research at this point and that the new weapons could be critical in dismantling chemical and biological weapons.

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