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Clinton, Putin to Hold First Meeting Friday

Clinton reacting before her talks with Lavrov on Thursday, which concluded with pledges to cooperate on Afghanistan but disagreement over Bushehr. Alexander Zemlianichenko

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will get to meet Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, his spokesman said Thursday, raising hopes that her two-day working visit to Moscow would give fresh impetus to a floundering reset of bilateral ties.

But the announcement was the only outwardly positive news of the day, as Putin said during a meeting on nuclear energy industry in Volgodonsk that Russia would launch Iran's Bushehr nuclear reactor this summer. Related story.

Speaking to reporters after talks with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Clinton said the announcement would send the wrong message to Iran and that the world needed to know that Tehran was not trying to build nuclear weapons.

"In the absence of those reassurances, we think it would be premature to go forward with any project at this time because we want to send an unequivocal message to the Iranians," Clinton said.

Lavrov said Russian builders would start the long-delayed plant anyway and that further diplomacy on the issue was needed.

Iran has accused Russia of holding up the work for political leverage, while Moscow has maintained that the delays are largely technical.

The talks with Putin, widely regarded as the country's most powerful politician, come as a last-minute arrangement after a request from the State Department, Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said Thursday.

"Late Wednesday night the American side asked for such a meeting, and the prime minister agreed," he told The Moscow Times.

Clinton is to hold talks with President Dmitry Medvedev on Friday before meeting Putin at his residence in Novo-Ogaryovo.

Both Peskov and Clinton's staff had earlier said no such meeting was planned because Putin was scheduled to be out of town, U.S. and Russian media reported.

Peskov said the talks would touch on a "wide range of issues, including international and trade relations."

Clinton has not had an official meeting with Putin since becoming President Barack Obama's top diplomat. During her first visit, in October 2009, Putin was on a trip to China.

Her second visit to Moscow comes almost exactly a year after she presented Lavrov a symbolic reset button in Geneva. The red-and-yellow button was a source of considerable mockery because the word "reset" was mistranslated into Russian as "overcharge."

Washington has since taken some strides to improve U.S.-Russian relations, like scrapping the previous administration's missile defense plans for Poland and the Czech Republic, much reviled in Moscow, and pushing cooperation on its military operations in Afghanistan and nuclear nonproliferation.

But no visible results have been reached on a successor agreement to the START nuclear disarmament treaty or support for sanctions against Iran, regarded as the two key issues between Moscow and Washington.

Clinton said earlier this week that the reset was now well-established but that the true test would be how to expand cooperation in areas of shared interest like Iran, START and fighting Islamist terrorism.

In an interview with Rossiiskaya Gazeta published Thursday, Lavrov also remained aloof about ties with Washington. "I won't say that [Russia and the United States] are enemies, but we're not friends, either," he told the state's newspaper of record.

Regional issues, including relations with Georgia and Ukraine, were discussed during a meeting between Assistant Secretary of State Philip Gordon and Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin on Wednesday, the Foreign Ministry said in a statement Thursday.

And despite the hopes for better ties or details on when a new arms treaty might be signed, Clinton's main mission is a meeting of the Quartet of Middle East peacemakers.

The Quartet's leaders, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, European Union Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton, Clinton and Lavrov, as well as Quartet Representative Tony Blair, met for dinner Thursday before the official discussions Friday on how to promote Middle East peace.

The leaders hope to send a strong international signal to Palestinians and Israelis to resume direct peace talks, the Foreign Ministry said Thursday. Negotiations broke off in late 2008 with Israel's incursion into Hamas-ruled Gaza.

Russia is the Quartet's only member that maintains direct links with the Hamas militants.

The peace process was further strained earlier this month after Israel announced that it planned to build 1,600 new homes in East Jerusalem, an area that Palestinians claim for the capital of a future state.

The announcement, which came as U.S. Vice President Joe Biden was visiting to restart stalled talks, has strained ties between Washington and Tel Aviv, usually a close ally.

The United Nations and the Collective Treaty Organization, a Russian-led security group of former Soviet nations, have signed a cooperation agreement that deals with border security, drug trafficking and organized crime.

"This is a very important part of UN efforts to promote cooperation with regional organizations," Ban said after the signing Thursday, The Associated Press reported.

Analysts have said the Kremlin is anxious to gain UN recognition of the Moscow-dominated alliance, which includes Russia, Armenia, Belarus and four Central Asian nations.

The agreement gives extra legitimacy to alliance operations, which have been confined to former Soviet territory.

The Collective Treaty Organization's creation in 2002 has been called part of an effort to regain influence among former Soviet republics and limit the influence of NATO and Western powers in what Moscow regards as its backyard.

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