(photo credit: AP)
Russian President Vladimir Putin, in his annual address on the state of his nation, projected the image of a powerful, unified Russia with stabile democratic practices and a foreign agenda that pursues profits for economic and political gain.
His said the economy had emerged from 2006's "year of stability" into 2007's "year of development" riding the successes of the energy and arms sectors. But journalists wanting to know more about some of the beneficiaries of these industries, such as Iran, were served Kremlin-style ambiguity.
Putin's interest in the Iranian initiative to create an OPEC-style organization for natural gas has sparked controversy. It is serious cause for concern for the European Union, which depends heavily on Russian gas imports. The proposed alliance would incorporate the Russian, Iranian and Algerian reserves, which together account for more then 50 percent of the world's natural gas resources.
Putin said the Kremlin only wanted to help distribute natural gas to the Third World, and was not interested in setting up a cartel. He would like to dispel the notion that the proposal means Russian support for Teheran's struggle against the West.
Putin said Russia was firmly against a nuclear Iran, and that its cooperation with the Iranian regime was aimed at finding diplomatic solutions.
Russia's solution is to create a uranium enrichment facility for Iran on Russian soil. But Putin is not making great efforts to pursue this option, as seen by his continuing support of Teheran's Bushehr project. He believes the Iranians have the right to peaceful nuclear technology, but that it is up to them to assuage international concerns over the project.
The Russians are in the midst of a public relations campaign aimed at shedding their leadership's harsh image. The Kremlin is brushing aside the accusations of government involvement in the Litvinenko and Politkovskaya murders as rumors.
The PR coming out of the Kremlin is that Russia is not a country that uses its wealth of resources as political weapons or for coercion.
Regarding weapons sales to Iran, the Russians say they only deliver short-range missiles that are strictly for defensive use. They would have us believe that the days when the only criteria for arms sales was money are over, and that the Russians now only sell to those in need of defensive weaponry.
There was no mention of the Quartet in Putin's comments. He said Russia was not, and will not, fighting for influence in the Middle East, but that it was interested in brokering peace and hoped to lead negotiations between the Gulf states and Israel.
Zvi Magen, who was interviewed by Yaniv Salama-Scheer, is director of the Institute for Eurasian Studies at IDC Herzliya. He is a former ambassador to Russia.