Russian leader visits Iran, backs host on nuclear issue

TEHRAN, Iran – Russian President Vladimir Putin, appearing side by side with his Iranian counterpart at a five-nation summit here Tuesday, made a powerful show of support for America’s regional archenemy, drawing the line against any attack on Iran and reaffirming Iran’s right to civilian nuclear use.

At the same time, Putin stopped short of unconditional support of the Iranian regime, although the tenor of his remarks appeared at odds with earlier suggestions from the Bush administration that Putin might take a more pro-Western stance.

Days after publicly dismissing U.S. plans for a missile defense system, Putin arrived in the Iranian capital in a painstakingly scrutinized visit that was the first here by a Kremlin leader since Josef Stalin mapped out World War II strategy with Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill in 1943.

Despite continuing threats from the West against Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Putin told reporters that Tehran had the right to continued civilian nuclear enrichment.

“Russia is the only country that has assisted Iran in implementing its peaceful nuclear program,” Putin said. “We believe all countries have the right to a peaceful nuclear energy program.”

The Russian president also warned the other Caspian Sea nations present not to allow their countries to be used for military assaults against Iran, a clear message to the U.S., which has refused to rule out an attack to halt or slow the Iranian nuclear program it believes is ultimately aimed at building nuclear weapons.

“We are saying that no Caspian nation should offer its territory to third powers for use of force or military aggression against any Caspian state,” Putin told reporters.

The U.S. maintains strong military ties with the Caspian Sea nation of Azerbaijan, and has been wooing Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan for flyover privileges and intelligence sharing. The three nations, all formerly part of the Soviet Union, retain authoritarian leadership and have become political battlegrounds between the U.S. and Russia.

Putin came ostensibly to discuss energy, security and environmental policy with his regional counterparts, and international analysts say he would have attended the summit regardless of the heightened international tensions over Iran’s nuclear program.

But the image of Putin smiling in appearances with Ahmadinejad, as well as the leaders of three other nations, served to highlight the dramatic differences between the Russian and American relationships with Iran, which Washington views as its principal adversary in the region and Moscow considers a valuable ally and trading partner.


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