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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Gore Hails 'Historic' Plutonium Pact

U.S. Vice President Al Gore said Tuesday that the United States and Russia had reached a "historic" agreement to halt the production of weapons-grade plutonium.

Under the accord, long sought by the United States, Russia agreed to convert its last three plutonium-producing nuclear reactors to civilian use by 2000, and both sides agreed to lower ceilings on their stockpiles of weapons-grade plutonium.

"After much hard work, we took an important, perhaps even historic step this week when we reached this agreement," Gore said.

Gore also praised Russia for developing a "market economy" -- a distinction Moscow is anxious to win because it affects the way the United States applies duties and tariffs to certain imports from Russia.

Gore was in Moscow for the ninth meeting of an economic and technical cooperation he co-chairs with Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin.

The two leaders and their negotiating teams head for the Volga River city of Samara on Wednesday, where Gore will meet with small-enterprise owners to get a sense of how business is done in Russia's regions.

The twice-yearly Gore-Chernomyrdin talks have become a forum for the two countries to air laundry lists of trade and foreign policy disputes that linger in the aftermath of the Cold War.

Gradually the meetings are also becoming a useful stage for two potential presidential candidates -- elections are slated for 2000 both in Russia and the United States -- to showcase their leadership and negotiating skills.

"I'm learning from you as we go through these nine rounds," Gore told Chernomyrdin during a news conference Tuesday. "We have chemistry. We work well together."

But as the two work to shed their images of uninspiring and bookish politicians, Russian observers at the two-day talks lamented that none of the economic agreements the Kremlin had been pushing for were actually signed.

Yeltsin met earlier in the day with President Boris Yeltsin. Gore said those talks went on longer than scheduled, but did not elaborate on the substance of the discussions.

Under the plutonium accord, Washington offers Russia financial aid in converting reactors in three Siberian cities to civilian use by 2000. Russia also pledges not to activate any of 10 other plutonium-producing reactors that had already been shut down.

In an official White House statement, the United States said it had ended production of weapons-grade plutonium in 1989 and will keep to that decision.

Washington considers the accord central to efforts to limit the spread of nuclear weapons. Some experts have voiced concern about the possible theft or loss of weapons-grade plutonium in the confusion following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Earlier in his visit, which began Sunday, Gore repeated Washington's concerns that Iran may be using Russian technology to develop its own nuclear weapons program.

"It is obvious that there is a vigorous effort by Iran to obtain the technologies it needs to build a ballistic missile and to build nuclear weapons," he said.

Washington has tried to convince Moscow to end its financially lucrative Iran program. This week, at least, Washington clearly failed.

Russia insists it is only helping Tehran build a civilian power plant, and has even invited Washington to help monitor the work.

"We have our own obligations, and no one can stop us from keeping them," Chernomyrdin said after Tuesday's round of negotiations.

Commenting on reports that private Russian nuclear research centers may be helping Iran build rockets capable of delivering nuclear warheads to Israel, Gore said: "We are trying to get to the bottom of this issue."

Gore said a joint U.S.-Russian committee presented some of its conclusions on the Iran rocket report, but he said those findings were a state secret.

One of Russia's biggest concerns before Gore's visit was to win official recognition by Washington that it had developed a true "market economy" -- a seal of approval that would work in Russia's favor in existing and future trade disputes with the United States.

"Obviously Russia has a market economy," Gore said, pledging to help push the appropriate legislation through the U.S. Congress.

But he also laid out some strict conditions. U.S. investment in Russia will "grow as conditions that will stipulate it are put into place," he said.

Those include the implementation of a reasonable tax code, protection of U.S. intellectual property and a well-organized campaign to fight crime and corruption.

A new tax code has been sent to parliament in a bid to meet foreign-investor concerns, but it has met strong opposition in the State Duma, the communist-dominated lower house.

Russian television commentators termed the Gore-Chernomyrdin talks a failure because Moscow was unable to knock down any of the existing U.S. import duties on Russian metals and minerals.

Gore, for his part, got nowhere in his bid to persuade Moscow to reject a new religion bill that Catholics, Protestants and other so-called nontraditional religions in Russia contend will restrict their rights.

On Tuesday, a Kremlin spokesman said President Boris Yeltsin will sign the measure after it is approved by the Federation Council, parliament's upper house, possibly this week.