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MOSCOW (AP) - Russia asked Iran on Tuesday to provide guarantees that it is not using its atomic energy program as a cover to develop nuclear weapons, the strongest sign yet that U.S. concerns are being taken seriously in Moscow.

The Foreign Ministry statement came less than a week before a summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Bush. Iran's alleged nuclear weapons program has been one of the major sources of discord between Moscow and Washington.

The Bush administration has accused Iran of secretly embarking on a program to enrich uranium at Natanz in southern Iran, which American officials fear could be used to make nuclear weapons.

Washington wants the International Atomic Energy Agency to declare that Iran has violated the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty when the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency meets next month.

Russia's Foreign Ministry said Deputy Foreign Minister Georgy Mamedov met Tuesday with Iranian Ambassador Gholamreza Shafei and expressed concern about the existence of "serious, unresolved questions in connection with Iran's nuclear research."

Mamedov said Iran should sign "as soon as possible" an additional agreement with the IAEA to put Tehran's nuclear facilities under closer scrutiny. He also said the U.N. agency should thoroughly discuss the matter at its meeting in June.

The ministry said Shafei gave assurances Tehran "is strongly committed to its obligations" under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The Iranian ambassador also categorically denied that Iran has ties with international terror groups, the ministry said.

Washington suspects Iran of harboring al-Qaida terrorists who may be linked to the recent terrorist bombings in Saudi Arabia and Morocco.

Russia signed a deal with Iran to build a nuclear reactor in the southern city of Bushehr in 1995, shrugging off U.S. concerns that it could help Tehran build an atomic bomb.

On Monday, Atomic Energy Minister Alexander Rumyantsev said the construction of the Bushehr nuclear power plant wouldn't be affected by the frictions between the United States and Iran.

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Still, Rumyantsev said, Russia would hold monthly consultations with the U.S. Department of Energy to discuss the project.

Moscow "hopes for a step-by-step effort to normalize Iranian-American relations, which will help defuse tensions in the entire Middle East region," the Foreign Ministry said Tuesday.

Russia has been trying to patch up ties with the United States, which were strained by the war in Iraq, and has been particularly eager to ensure that the presidential summit in St. Petersburg on Sunday proceeds smoothly.

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