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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bush to Court Putin With a Nuclear Pact

WASHINGTON -- U.S. President George W. Bush's administration said Saturday that it would open formal negotiations with Russia on a long-discussed civilian nuclear agreement that would pave the way for Russia to become one of the world's largest repositories of spent nuclear fuel.

President Vladimir Putin has been looking to expand the country's role in the multibillion-dollar nuclear power business. The United States has traditionally opposed any such arrangement, in part because of concerns about the safety of Russian nuclear facilities, and because the country had helped Iran build its first major nuclear reactor.

But administration officials said once Bush endorsed Putin's proposal last year for Iran to conduct uranium enrichment inside Russia -- rather than in Iran, where the administration fears it would be used for weapons production -- it made little sense to bar ordinary civilian nuclear exchanges with Russia

In announcing the change of course, the White House made it clear that in return, it expected Putin's cooperation in what promises to be a tense confrontation with Iran on forcing it to give up the enrichment of uranium. Bush has charged that the enrichment is intended to feed a secret nuclear weapons program. "We have made clear to Russia that for an agreement on peaceful nuke cooperation to go forward, we will need active cooperation in blocking Iran's attempts to obtain nuclear weapons," said White House spokesman Peter Watkins.

So far, Russia has backed the United States in its fundamental demands but balked at the imposition of sanctions or the passage of any UN Security Council resolution that Bush could later use as a justification for military action.

The Washington Post first reported the shift Saturday.

A spokesman for Putin declined to comment. But Sergei Novikov, a spokesman for the Federal Atomic Energy Agency, said by telephone that Russia and the United States had been talking about the subject in recent months.

He said he did not expect that an agreement would be signed during the Group of Eight summit in St. Petersburg next weekend, but rather that Bush and Putin might issue a vaguely worded statement on increased nuclear cooperation, and then instruct their governments to work on a deal that might lift the current restrictions. The United States has similar deals with a variety of nations, including China.

If such a statement is issued, Novikov said, negotiations on the details would probably take at least several months. "I would rather not talk about any expectations, so as not to experience any frustration should they not come true," he said.

For Bush, an accord could help solve two problems: where to send a growing stockpile of waste from nuclear fuel that originated in the United States, and how to keep Russia on board in pressuring Iran to give up its uranium enrichment programs.

Under U.S. law, the United States retains control over nuclear fuel, and nuclear waste made from uranium that originated in the United States. As a result, it has barred South Korea, Taiwan and other states that bought U.S. fuel from transferring it to Russia, which changed its laws several years ago to enter the multibillion-dollar business of storing nuclear waste. The proposed agreement does not appear to be intended to allow storage in Russia of waste from U.S. reactors.

But a negotiation would also help provide Putin with an economic incentive for giving up nuclear aid to Iran, which has long been one of the Bush administration's objectives.

In two previous trips to St. Petersburg, Bush tried to persuade Putin to give up a contract to supply the reactors to Iran's Bushehr nuclear plant. But Russia resisted, and eventually Bush accepted a deal in which any nuclear fuel Russia sold to Iran would have to be returned to Russia after use.

Congress would have the right to review any agreement. But since the administration just concluded an accord with India that required a more intensive nuclear review, administration officials said they thought Russia would win approval. Senator Charles Schumer, Democrat and a regular administration critic, offered tentative approval of the idea. "While the devil is certainly in the details, given that our greatest danger right now is a nuclear Iran and North Korea, we very much need Russia's help," he said. Congressman Edward Royce, a Republican and the chairman of the House Subcommittee on International Terrorism and Nonproliferation, said he was supportive of the idea but that he expected to hold hearings.

Representative Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who is the co-chairman of the Bipartisan Task Force on Nonproliferation, harshly criticized Bush over the move. "President Bush's foreign policy has become so hollow that his favorite bargaining position is to give everything away. He is repeatedly rewarding bad behavior," he said.

Outside experts with whom the administration had been consulting on the deal said they had sensed a recent cooling off on the idea as Russia continued to hold out on bringing sanctions against Iran. The plans seemed to pick up again several weeks ago when Federal Atomic Energy Agency chief Sergei Kiriyenko lobbied hard for it during meetings with counterparts in Washington.

At the same time, the administration seemed to come around to thinking that the negotiations for the deal could help bring Russia more fully on board with the administration's efforts to rein in Iran, said Robert Einhorn, senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "They had reached the conclusion that entering the negotiations would provide continuing leverage," Einhorn said.