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Russia signs deal with Iranian president to bolster arms sales

MOSCOW (AP) — The presidents of Russia and Iran pledged Monday to increase trade in conventional weapons and nuclear energy cooperation and spoke out against U.S. activity in the energy-rich Caspian Sea region.

Iranian President Mohammed Khatami and Russia's Vladimir Putin met in the Kremlin and signed the first broad cooperation agreement between the two nations since Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution.

Khatami's visit comes amid strong U.S. opposition to growing ties between Iran and Russia.

The agreement signed Monday promises increased cooperation in the nuclear energy sphere, beyond Russia's current construction of a reactor at Iran's Bushehr nuclear plant.

Putin also defended efforts to increase Russian arms sales to Iran, saying the deals would not violate international agreements. For years, Moscow's military cooperation with Tehran has caused concern in Washington, which believes Iran sponsors terrorists.

"We believe that Iran has the right to ensure its security and defend itself," Putin said.

"Russia is also interested in such cooperation for economic reasons. And the political reasons are that we believe that Iran must be an independent, self-sufficient state capable of defending its national interests."

Iran's ambassador to Moscow said recently that Tehran could buy up to $7 billion worth of Russian weapons in coming years.

The Russian government has not divulged details of possible arms deals. However, officials have indicated that Iran had expressed interest in buying S-300 air defense missiles, fighter jets, helicopters, patrol boats and other weapons.

Russia says it has abided by international agreements banning the proliferation of nuclear and missile technologies. However, Moscow warned Washington in November that it was abandoning a 1995 pledge not to sell tanks and other battlefield weapons to Iran.

Putin and Khatami also signed an agreement opposing any pipelines across the sea bed of the Caspian, indirectly referring to U.S. efforts to persuade Kazakstan to ship oil across the sea instead of through Russia.

The presidents did not mention the United States in their comments, but their statements clearly reflected an effort to offset U.S. global dominance.

"Our region more than at any time in the past needs calm and stability. To achieve stability and peace we don't need any extra-regional forces. Just the opposite, any alien presence may undermine the stability," Khatami said.

Moscow has dismissed U.S. demands that it cancel the $800 million Bushehr nuclear plant contract. The United States claims the technology could be used to develop nuclear weapons, but Moscow and Tehran say the plant can be used only for civilian purposes.