By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 19, 2010; A14
MOSCOW -- U.S. and Russian negotiators are "at the finish line" in negotiating a major agreement to cut the number of nuclear warheads each side has deployed against the other, with just one or two issues left to resolve, officials said Thursday.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and the Russian foreign minister said after talks here that they awaited word soon from negotiators in Geneva who have been working 18-hour days to wrap up the agreement.
The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) is a top priority of President Obama, who initially had pledged to finish it by last year. Obama spoke by phone with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev last weekend to iron out remaining obstacles, giving new momentum to the talks, officials said.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin announced Thursday that Russia would fire up the reactor it is building at an Iranian nuclear power plant at midyear. Asked about the move, Clinton told reporters it was "premature," because "we want to send an unequivocal message to the Iranians" that they have to desist from developing a nuclear bomb.
"If it [Iran] reassures the world [about its program], or if its behavior has changed because of international sanctions," then the country can go ahead with nuclear power plants, she told a news conference. Iran insists that its nuclear program is peaceful.
Russia agreed to build Iran's first nuclear power plant near Bushehr 15 years ago, but the construction schedule has constantly slipped. Many analysts think Russia is using the delays as leverage. Putin's announcement actually appeared to mark a further setback in the plant's completion date, which had been set for the spring. But the timing of the announcement was awkward for Clinton and appeared to be a jab at her efforts to put together a tough international line on Iran.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the U.S. government did not oppose the Russian nuclear project, which would be open to international inspectors and require Iran to return the spent fuel so it could not be turned into weapons material. The concern, Crowley said, was the "potential for a mixed message."
The Bushehr plant did not come up in Clinton's discussions with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Crowley said.
Clinton's two-day trip is built around a meeting of the Quartet of Middle East peace mediators -- the European Union and the United Nations, in addition to Russia and the United States. But she will discuss bilateral issues as well as Iran in her meetings with Lavrov and Medvedev. A Friday visit with Putin was added to her schedule at the last minute at the request of the prime minister, who had previously indicated he would be out of town, U.S. officials said.
The new START pact would replace a 1991 treaty that expired in December. Obama and Medvedev agreed last year that it would reduce deployed "strategic" or long-range warheads from the current ceiling of 2,200 to somewhere between 1,500 and 1,675. It also will trim the number of bombers and missiles that launch the nuclear weapons.
"We have every reason to believe we are now at the finish line," Lavrov told a news conference Thursday.
Crowley said the negotiations on START were "down to one or two items" still to be resolved. "We're very, very close," he said.
He declined to identify the final obstacles, but officials familiar with the talks said one of them involved the data that the Russians send their U.S. counterparts from their long-range missile tests.
The Russians have balked at continuing to send such data. But U.S. negotiators believe they can't give much ground on such verification procedures, since the Senate has indicated that it won't approve a treaty without them.