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Though it has failed to resolve the missile shield crisis, Russian President Vladimir Putin's offer to break the deadlock by placing a US missile defense system in Azerbaijan is the latest sign of growing Russian willingness to cooperate on Iran, those tracking the issue say.
They point to an increasing awareness in Russia of the threat posed by Iran and a need to push the Islamic Republic following intransigence in the face of international demands that it halt its uranium enrichment efforts.
The backing is particularly crucial as the United States both rallies support for another UN Security Council resolution aimed at curbing Iran's nuclear ambitions and explores options for economic pressure outside of the UN framework. The G-8 countries, of which Russia is one, on Friday announced they would "support adopting further measures" in the form of a third UNSC resolution if Iran refuses to stop its uranium enrichment program.
Concurrently, the US has been pushing to deploy missile defense facilities in the Czech Republic and Poland to protect Europe from the threat of an Iranian attack. The United States said it would study the Azerbaijan proposal but press ahead with its installation plans in Europe, which has troubled the Russians because they say it would give Europeans the capability to track Russian as well as Iranian missile launches.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov bristled at America's response to its overture and on Saturday warned that the US missile defense plans could hamper efforts to ease international concerns about Iran's nuclear program, RIA-Novosti reported. He suggested that Washington's stated intention of protecting against a potential Iranian threat would anger Teheran by indicating that Iran is seeking to develop nuclear weapons - an assertion he said had not been proven.
Yet the Russian willingness to do exactly that - to anger Teheran by installing radar for a missile defense system in Azerbaijan, which borders Iran - shows cooperation with the US on defusing the Iranian threat, according to experts. They also say that Azerbaijan would be a more effective site than the European ones for defending against an Iranian attack.
"It's a positive development on the political and strategic level," said nuclear proliferation expert James Goodby, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution.
If the US were to accept the Azerbaijan site, it would have the benefit of enabling strategic defensive collaboration between the two countries, he said.
Even as tensions have flared between the two countries - the missile shield being only the latest and loudest example - the White House has been at pains to highlight positive aspects of the relationship with Putin, as domestic critics have increasingly questioned the Putin-Bush connection. Most frequently the administration focuses on cooperation with Iran.
"You've got a lot of areas of cooperation, particularly on nuclear nonproliferation, issues like North Korea and even Iran, where I think we've come a long way in our ability to cooperate with the Russians," US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in an interview with NBC Friday.
And before departing for the G-8 meeting last week, US National Security Adviser Steve Hadley told reporters that the relationship with Russia is "complicated," but that, "It has areas of common effort, such as Iran, where our collaboration has been good, and has increased over time."
Patrick Clawson, an Iran expert with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Russia has been "modestly helpful" to the US in dealing with Iran, and that the Azerbaijan offer points in the direction of greater Russian assistance.
Increasingly, he said, "They think that some of the things the Iranians are doing are dangerous and ought to be stopped." Goodby said Russia has traditionally downplayed the threat of a nuclear Iran, partly out of the assumption that Teheran would be unable to master the technology necessary for a nuclear warhead. But now "they are being to get a little more concerned." And that, in turn, means the Iranians should be more concerned.
The Russian willingness to propose the Azerbaijan site, Goodby said, "puts them firmly in the camp that would [make] Iran worried."
The Associated Press contributed to this report