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MOSCOW (AP) - Russia gave the strongest signal yet Thursday that it shares U.S. concerns over Iran's nuclear program, calling for tighter international controls to make sure Tehran doesn't develop atomic weapons.

Deputy Foreign Minister Georgy Mamedov said Russia would like Iran to sign an agreement with the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, to put its nuclear facilities under close watch and make sure they aren't used as a cover for a nuclear weapons program.

Russia signed a deal with Iran to build a nuclear reactor in the southern city of Bushehr in 1995, and has shrugged off U.S. concerns that it could help Tehran build an atomic bomb. Mamedov said that stance had not changed.

"Our conscience is crystal clear," Mamedov said. He accused unidentified Western firms of helping Tehran acquire nuclear weapons know-how.

"There is a legend that all problems stem from Russia's peaceful nuclear cooperation with Iran, used as a cover for transferring nuclear weapons technology, and we categorically deny that," Mamedov said. "We are trying to attract U.S. attention to the fact that some concerns about Iran's nuclear weapons program are related to the illegal activities of several western companies."

Mamedov refused to provide any details, saying American and Russian experts were studying the issue.

Mamedov said Moscow still trusts Iran's assurances that its nuclear program is peaceful. But, Mamedov added, "we have questions that we are putting to the Iranian side, and we hope they will be answered."

The IAEA is to submit a report in June on Iran's nuclear weapons program. Washington expects the agency to declare that Iran has violated the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty by secretly developing a uranium enrichment plant in Natanz in southern Iran.

"Russia is even more concerned over nuclear proliferation than the United States," Mamedov said. "These weapons can be used in acute regional conflicts alongside the Russian border, particularly in the south."

Mamedov's statement came as Moscow tries to patch up ties with the United States that were strained by disagreements over the war in Iraq. On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell held talks in Moscow with President Vladimir Putin to discuss Iraq and other issues, including Iran's nuclear program.

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"Neither the United States nor Russia would like to see a program that goes in the direction of developing a nuclear weapon in Iran," Powell told Echo of Moscow radio. "We will work with the international community to persuade Iran that they should not move in this direction."

Since the war in Iraq, many countries have expressed fear that the United States will take military action against other countries, particularly Iran or North Korea. Along with Iraq, they made up what Bush administration officials dubbed the 'axis of evil' last year.

Asked whether the United States was preparing to send troops to Iran, Powell said: "It is not a matter for the armed forces of the United States at the moment."

Copyright © 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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