US arms control chief in Moscow for North Korea, Iran talks
MOSCOW (AFP) Aug 25, 2003
The top US diplomat for arms control was due in Moscow on Monday for a brief visit focused on the nuclear crisis over North Korea and Russia's controversial atomic cooperation with Iran.

US officials said John Bolton, the undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, would meet Russian Atomic Energy Minister Alexander Rumyantsev and Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Kislyak, who is in charge of disarmament issues.

Bolton was due to leave Moscow on Tuesday to continue a whirlwind European tour that is also taking him to Paris, Rome and London.

Russian officials were tight-lipped about Bolton's visit, which comes only two days before key six-way talks to be held in Beijing on Washington's nuclear standoff with Pyongyang.

Russia, along with the United States, China, South Korea and Japan, will be participating in the Beijing meeting, which is expected to last three days.

But Moscow is entering the talks with low expectations, its chief negotiator Alexander Losyukov saying Monday upon his arrival in Beijing that "we have come here with cautious optimism.

"Unfortunately, the chances of an agreement being reached at this stage in Beijing are very slim," the deputy foreign minister was quoted as saying by Interfax.

Besides the prickly issue of North Korea, the United States has also long been pressing Russia to stop providing assistance to Iran's atomic energy program, which Washington insists is a cover for nuclear weapons development.

Moscow has resisted Washington's appeals but US officials have begun to claim some success in that area with State Department spokesman Richard Boucher saying as recently as Thursday that Russia's position seems to have shifted.

Senior US diplomats in Moscow have also said in private that atomic energy minister Rumyantsev has recently appeared to soften his position concerning Iran, expressing his own concern about Tehran's nuclear ambitions.

However, Russia is pressing ahead with construction of Iran's first nuclear power station at Bushehr, with ITAR-TASS reporting that the reactor is now likely to go online next year.

An atomic energy ministry spokesman told AFP that it was "very likely" that Russia and Iran would sign a separate protocol agreement next month in which Tehran would promise to return all spent nuclear fuel to Russia for reprocessing.

The West had expressed concern that should Iran keep the spent fuel, it could be enriched to create low-grade nuclear weapons.

Washington further believes that Russia has told Tehran it will not deliver atomic fuel for the Iranian program unless Iran signs up to tougher UN inspections, although Moscow has issued contradictory statements as to whether this is the case.

US officials in Washington said Bolton would also be looking for Russia's thoughts on the so-called "Proliferation Security Initiative," a US-led program that 10 other nations have signed on to thus far.

The initiative is aimed at preventing the export -- primarily by Iran and North Korea -- of weapons of mass destruction and missile delivery systems by seizing such materiel from ships and planes even if they are in international waters.

The 11 participating nations are to hold their first naval exercise to practice boarding vessels and seizing their contents next month in the Coral Sea off the northeastern coast of Australia.