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By Paul Richter, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — A senior Obama administration official said Friday that U.S. frictions with Russia over Ukraine have not interfered with discussions concerning pending Iran nuclear negotiations, and expressed hope that the deepening conflict “will not put these negotiations at risk.”

In a media briefing ahead of a negotiating session scheduled for March 17 in Vienna, the official said U.S. and Russian officials spoke “at great length” on Iran this week, as U.S. officials did with other envoys from the six-nation group that is seeking to work out a deal with Iran. The official spoke on condition of anonymity due to the diplomatic sensitivity of the subject.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in London on Friday in an apparently unsuccessful attempt to resolve their differences over Ukraine, which became a hot-button issue when troops from Russia invaded the Crimean peninsula in late February. The Russian-supported government in Crimea is set to hold a referendum Sunday on whether to secede from Ukraine, a move the U.S. has condemned as illegal.

As international frictions over Ukraine have grown, Western officials have worried that the clash could halt collaboration with Russia on the Iran nuclear talks and the Syrian civil war.

U.S. officials have generally argued that they believe Russia will continue to cooperate on Iran because it doesn’t want another nuclear-armed state on its border. However, some former officials have noted Russian threats and said Moscow could undermine the talks in retaliation for U.S. pressure on Ukraine.

The Obama administration and the five other governments are seeking to negotiate a deal with Iran to ensure that its nuclear program does not develop bomb-making capability.

The official said the negotiators “are intent on succeeding, and intent on succeeding within the six-month time frame” that is the goal of the talks.

The official said the U.S. is satisfied that Iran’s oil sales will not exceed targets spelled out in a preliminary agreement on partially lifting international sanctions that was reached last November, even though there has been a uptick in sales in the last three months. U.S. officials have been in regular contact with Iran’s oil customers to try to ensure that they won’t violate the sanctions by exceeding the purchase targets.

The official, while declining to provide details of the talks, said they “are moving forward in a positive way.”

The group has discussed every major issue at least once and gone into greater depth on many, the official said.

The official acknowledged that countries have different views on various issues, and pointed out that a final deal will be reached only if the group can overcome all differences.

If a country asserts “a strident view … that’s going to have to be accommodated in some way,” the official said.

AFP Photo/Andrew Burton

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