In a rebuff to the United States, a top Russian diplomat said Tuesday there was no evidence Iran pursued a nuclear weapons capability in violation of the international nonproliferation agreement.
Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Losyukov contradicted allegations about Iran's nuclear program that U.S. Undersecretary of State John Bolton made Monday in Moscow.
Bolton had sought to persuade Russian officials to acknowledge Tehran has a clandestine weapons program and to win Russian support for a critical report on Iran's nuclear efforts by the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA.
"Very sound evidence is needed to accuse anyone. So far, neither the United States nor any other countries can present it," Losyukov said, according to the Interfax news agency.
Losyukov did acknowledge that Iran's nuclear program had some uncertainties, and that Moscow would work with Tehran to "add more transparency" to its program. As for Russian-Iranian nuclear cooperation, Losyukov said the work was "strictly in line with IAEA norms."
Russia's nuclear cooperation with Iran has long been a contentious issue between Washington and Moscow.
"In recent months, more and more information has been coming out to confirm that Iran is running a complete nuclear fuel cycle, that they have been interested in developing various aspects of the nuclear cycle," said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher on Monday. "It's not in anybody's interest to have nuclear cooperation with Iran, given their ultimate goals and intentions."
The United States claims that the technology and expertise Iran is gaining from Russia's construction of the $800 million Bushehr nuclear power plant could be used for a weapons program, and that Russian companies — perhaps without official permission — have transferred weapons technology to Tehran.
Losyukov also contradicted Bolton's claim that Russia and the United States see eye-to-eye on how to handle the North Korean nuclear crisis. Bolton said Monday that neither Washington nor Moscow would like to see a nuclear-armed North Korea and that both favored multilateral talks on the problem.
"We stand for the negotiating process," Losyukov said. "John Bolton said that the United States also stands for a peaceful, negotiated solution and will do everything to support this. But there is no absolute clarity about what concrete steps will be taken in the near future to move in this direction."
President Bush has said he wants a peaceful solution but has not ruled out military action.
Iran is a member of the "axis of evil," along with Iraq and North Korea. Like Syria, it has been the target of increasingly hostile rhetoric from U.S. officials since the war against Iraq got under way.
Military and intelligence officials said last month they were watching for signs that Iran might be promoting anti-American demonstrations or other challenges to U.S. authority in an effort to exert influence in a new Iraq.
U.S. officials say they are monitoring Iran — a Shiite Muslim state — in hopes of deterring any encouragement of anti-American militancy among Iraq's Shiite majority.
U.S. Marines have conducted patrols along the Iran-Iraq border in order to apprehend fleeing Iraqi officials, help Iraqi exiles who are returning home, and block the entry of potential troublemakers.
There is no conclusive evidence linking the Iranian government to anti-U.S. demonstrations, but officials said they are watching closely for such activity.
Iraq, under Saddam, fought a war with Iran through most of the 1980s.
In 2002, Iran also took steps in Afghanistan — on its opposite border — after the Taliban fell. It built roads, donated buses and granted scholarships to Afghans to attend Iranian universities.
The Tehran-based Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq opposes a U.S. administration in Iraq, but it has close ties with the rest of the U.S.-backed opposition, including the Kurds and the London-based Iraqi National Congress.
Last month, the United States agreed to a cease-fire with an Iraqi-based terrorist group that will be allowed to continue fighting against the Iranian government.
The deal signed April 15 with the Mujahedeen Khalq doesn't require its fighters to surrender to U.S.-led coalition forces — at least for now, said a military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The cease-fire appears to be a way for the United States to increase pressure on the Tehran government.