MOSCOW, Feb. 18 -- President Vladimir Putin said Friday that Russia would continue to help Iran develop nuclear power and that he was convinced the country did not intend to pursue a nuclear arms program. His position contrasted sharply with the Bush administration's stance and is likely to be the subject of intense discussions between Putin and President Bush in Slovakia next week.
"The latest steps by Iran have convinced us that Iran does not intend to produce nuclear arms," Putin said at a meeting in Moscow with the head of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, Hassan Rouhani. "In this context, we will continue cooperation with Iran in all areas, including the nuclear energy field."
Russia is building an $800 million nuclear power plant in southern Iran, near the city of Bushehr. The United States has expressed concern that Iran will reprocess fuel from the plant and produce plutonium for weapons.
Rouhani said Friday, however, that Iran was willing to sign an agreement to return all spent fuel to Russia. Such an agreement would clear the way for the delivery of Russian nuclear fuel and allow the Bushehr plant to open next year.
Putin did not specify the "latest steps" taken by Iran, which is holding talks on its nuclear program with Britain, France and Germany that the United States has refused to join. Iran has also agreed to suspend its uranium enrichment program.
Rouhani said Russia could play a key role in resolving the dispute over Iran's intentions, adding that "no one can doubt that Iran's nuclear program has a peaceful character."
"Our opinion is that Russia's role may prove quite useful for the future of these negotiations," Rouhani said.
In Washington, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said at a news conference that there were "good reasons to be suspicious of what Iran is doing."
"We have our views, but the world appears to be concerned enough about this to be engaged in a variety of activities that would diminish the capability of the Iranians to build a nuclear weapon," she said.
Bush said in an interview with French television in advance of his trip to Europe next week that "I'm convinced, again, if the Iranians hear us loud and clear without any wavering that they will make the rational decision."
On Monday, a senior U.S. diplomat, briefing reporters in Moscow, said Russia was increasingly "wary" of Iran. But Putin's statement Friday, in which he referred to the "so-called nuclear problem," appeared to undercut such sentiment.
Speaking at the Kremlin, Putin said: "We are deeply convinced that the spread of nuclear arms across our planet does not help strengthen security."