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Obama, Medvedev sign treaty to reduce nuclear weapons

President Obama joined Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Prague, Czech Republic, Thursday to sign a historic "New START" treaty to reduce stockpiles of deployed, strategic nuclear weapons and set new procedures to verify which weapons each country possesses.

The treaty's new limits on Russian and American nuclear weapons are important in their own right, officials said, but are also crucial in restoring a "moral legitimacy" to both countries as they seek to restrain other nations from becoming nuclear powers.

"The signing of the new treaty is part of an overall strategy to put us in a strong political position to mobilize support," said one top White House adviser. "By restoring our moral legitimacy it puts us in a much stronger position."

White House aides said the treaty demonstrates that both countries have taken a "serious step" toward nuclear disarmament, and predicted in advance that the conversation would quickly shift to efforts by the world community to deal with Iranian and Korean nuclear ambitions.

"All of that will come to a head in May," when the U.S. hosts a conference on the Non-Proliferation Treaty in New York, said one senior official. "Everybody understands that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons. The question is whether the countries in the NPT and the United Nations will be acting together to stop Iran."

On the flight to Prague, Gibbs told reporters that the questions of sanctions on Iran would be a key part of the discussions, but said that both presidents would defer to the multilateral negotiations on that issue underway in New York.

"I don't expect any pronouncements today coming out of this meeting," Gibbs said before it started.

As they prepared for Thursday's signing ceremonies at the Prague Castle, Obama aides made clear that they viewed the president's meetings with Medvedev as a broader opportunity to discuss the improving relationship between the two countries.

Both countries sent full delegations to the Czech Republic, a sign that U.S. officials said reflects the desire for a wide-ranging discussion between the two leaders. One top Obama aide said the two presidents intended to discuss economic issues that have been largely overshadowed by months of nuclear talks.

"This is a full-blown summit," said one White House official, who predicted that Obama would raise issues including climate change, European security, missile defense issues and the conflict in Afghanistan.

"We're going to have a very substantive meeting with President Medvedev," the official said. "This is not just a relationship about arms control."

Obama advisers said the meeting will begin to lay the groundwork for a visit to the United States by Medvedev this summer -- a reciprocal visit for Obama's trip to Moscow last July.

U.S. aides are eager to portray the American-Russian relationship as vastly improved, an achievement they attribute to Obama's decision to "reset" relations when the two leaders first met in London last April.

"Let's remember where U.S.-Russian relations were when we took office," one top adviser said. "We were at one of the lowest points in a quarter-century. We're only now 15 months from that and we're in a different kind of relationship."

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