MOSCOW - Negotiators from the United States and Russia will take the first steps toward a new treaty to curb nuclear arms Friday, part of an effort to improve relations.

The Rome talks were called after presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev agreed at their first meeting, in London earlier this month, to work out a replacement for the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START-1) which expires in December.

A new arms reduction deal is seen by both sides as a way to show the former Cold War foes can work together despite bitter rows on other issues like NATO expansion into regions once dominated by Moscow and tackling Iran's nuclear ambitions.

In a keynote speech in Prague on April 6, Obama said arms cuts should go together with tough measures against violators of the nuclear non-proliferation regime like Iran or North Korea.

He said the United States would not abandon a project to install missile detection and interception systems in central Europe. Russia says the project threatens its own security and is skeptical of U.S. assurances that it is aimed solely at Iran.

Medvedev said this week Russia had its own conditions for moving toward new arms reduction accords, such as banning the deployment of weapons in space and making it impossible to compensate for nuclear cuts by building up other forces.

He also said Russia wanted warheads and missiles destroyed rather than stockpiled.

The head of the U.S. delegation -- Assistant Secretary of State for verification and compliance Rose Gottemoeller -- told a conference this month it would be hard to meet a deadline of December 5, when the existing START-1 treaty expires.


Anatoly Antonov, director of the Russian Foreign Ministry's security and disarmament department, will head Moscow's team at the Rome talks. He and Gottemoeller, former director of the Moscow Carnegie Center, know each other well, say officials.

Obama and Medvedev have ordered the negotiators to report back on progress in their talks by July.

They said the new arms deal should cut stockpiles below the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), under which both sides are to cut their arsenals to between 1,700 and 2,200 warheads by 2012. SORT will remain in force another three years.

Unlike the intrusive verification systems created by START, SORT only covers operationally deployed warheads and not those in storage.

This is a very important subject. We still disagree with the idea that restrictions apply only to operationally deployed warheads, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told Interfax news agency this week.

We cannot be indifferent to what happens to the warheads that are not deployed on means of their delivery but that are stockpiled.

The U.S. counters that its attempts to develop new conventional weapons and their delivery systems, such as submarines, will be hindered if potentially dual-use systems are subject to tight oversight rules.

The U.S. anti-missile plans in central Europe will be another sticking point. Ryabkov said last month that unless anti-missile systems were severely restricted, strong cuts in offensive nuclear weapons could expose Russia's security by limiting its potential to respond to attack.

He said earlier this month Washington showed no signs of revising its missile defense plans.