Russia tries to please both Iran and United States

Russian President Putin says he sees no evidence of Iranian nuclear capability.

;TEHRAN, Iran (AP) – Russian President Vladimir Putin sought to assuage both Iran and the West during his trip to Tehran, a delicate balancing act reflecting his reach for global clout and desire to preserve warm ties with a Middle Eastern ally without angering Washington.

Putin’s visit to Iran gave a strong boost to a country that has felt increasingly isolated and fearful of a U.S. attack. At the same time, the Russian leader kept a margin of distance, refusing Iranian pressure to set a firm startup date for a nuclear power plant Russia is building in Iran.

Putin cast his trip as part of global efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear standoff and said he would present the consolidated stance of international negotiators. But he insisted that direct contacts with Iran’s leadership were needed to break the deadlock – a challenge to Washington, which has refused to negotiate with the Iranians before Tehran complies with U.N. demands to halt uranium enrichment and reprocessing.

During his trip, Putin made an unspecified proposal concerning Iran’s nuclear program to the country’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s state news agency IRNA reported.

Officials close to hard-liners within Iran’s ruling Islamic establishment said they believed the proposal involved a “timeout” on sanctions if Iran suspends uranium enrichment. The U.S. and some allies allege the program is cover for making weapons. Iran says it is intended purely for peaceful energy production.

Khamenei said Iran would give Putin’s proposal serious thought, IRNA said.

President George W. Bush said Iran is one issue the United States and Russia agree on. But Putin said last week he saw no “objective data” to prove Western claims that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons.

Bush said he wanted to get a readout directly from Putin about his visit to Iran, the first by a Russian leader since 1943.

“I’ve told people that if you’re interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them (Iran) from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon,” Bush said.

He also said he was not bothered by the warmth between Putin and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during their meeting a day earlier.

“The thing I’m interested in is whether or not he continues to harbor the same concerns that I do,” he said, adding that at a September summit in Australia, Putin “reconfirmed to me that he recognizes it’s not in the world’s interest for Iran to have the capacity to make a nuclear weapon.”

Iran’s government hard-liners fear the United States is bent on overthrowing them, while ordinary people see their country’s ties to the outside world fraying to the detriment of their economy.

On Tuesday, Putin issued a strong warning against attacking Iran in his speech at a summit of Caspian Sea countries in Tehran.

Iranian media across the political spectrum celebrated Putin’s visit.

The hard-line daily Kayhan called the summit “a big victory for Iran,” saying it “proved Iran’s effective and influential role in regional and international relations.”

“The summit sent a loud message against encircling Tehran and paving the way for a third round of sanctions,” said the reformist Iranian daily Etemad-e-Melli.

Russia’s support is important for Iran as the United States and its allies push for the third set of sanctions. Russia and China, another key ally of Iran, grudgingly approved two previous sets, but the Kremlin has bristled at harsher measures.

The Iranians “are not afraid, believe me,” Putin said of the sanctions threat. He pointed to North Korea – which has agreed to shut down its nuclear reactor after international talks – as a potential model for resolving the Iranian standoff.

Russia has much to gain economically and politically from standing up to the United States in the rift over Iran. A stronger alliance with Iran would help Russia preserve its dominance in the Caspian region and discourage other ex-Soviet nations from launching Western-oriented pipeline projects that would bypass Moscow’s monopoly on pipelines out of the oil- and gas-rich area.

Putin also opposes a planned U.S. missile defense in Europe, calling it a threat to Russia and scoffing at Washington’s claim that it is needed to protect against Iranian missiles.

He is also playing up his image as a strong leader who is not afraid to challenge the United States, a posture popular in Russia ahead of national elections.

Putin recently said he did not see evidence that Iran is seeking to develop nuclear weapons.

But Moscow has also signaled a degree of uneasiness about Iran’s intentions and a wariness of damaging relations with Washington. It has urged Tehran to freeze enrichment and answer international questions about its nuclear program.

While Putin stressed that Russia would not renounce its commitment to complete Iran’s first nuclear power plant, Russia has balked at sending uranium fuel for the reactor and repeatedly postponed its launch.

“A nuclear Iran would be bad for all, but the perception of this threat is different,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs magazine. “Washington sees it as huge step toward a catastrophe. And Russia thinks: ‘yes, it will be bad, but it won’t be directed against us.'”