Putin ahmadinejad 224.88.
(photo credit: AP [file])
Russian President Vladimir Putin, on the first visit by a Kremlin leader to Iran in six decades, issued a veiled warning Tuesday against an attack on Iran and suggested that Moscow and Teheran should have a virtual veto on Western plans for pipelines from the oil and gas-rich Caspian Sea region.
The visit beefed up Russian-Iranian efforts to keep out US influence in the area. However, Putin refused to set a date for completing Iran's first nuclear reactor, in a bid to avoid an outright show of support for Iran's nuclear program, which Washington says is aimed at developing atomic weapons.
Putin met with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at a summit of leaders from nations surrounding the Caspian Sea.
Divvying up territory in and around the inland sea - believed to contain the world's third-largest energy reserves - has been a divisive issue among the littoral nations. But Putin used the occasion to bolster ties with Iran, including with nods to Iran's national pride - describing it as a "world power" and referring to the might of the Persian empire.
Putin strongly warned outside powers against use of force in the region, a clear reference to the United States, which many in Iran fear will attack over the nuclear issue.
"We are saying that no (Caspian) nations should offer their territory to outside powers for aggression or any military action against any of the Caspian states," Putin said.
The summit participants later signed a declaration which carried a similar statement - an apparent reflection of Teheran's fears that the United States could use Azerbaijan's territory as a staging ground for strikes against Iran.
Putin has warned against military action against Iran in the past, but reiterating them in Teheran gave them greater resonance - particularly at a summit for a region where Moscow has deeply resented US attempts at greater influence. Russia has a monopoly on pipeline routes for oil and gas from Central Europe and has rankled at US military cooperation with Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan.
In Iran's confrontation with the West over its nuclear program, Russia has tread a fine line, warning against heavy pressure on Iran and protecting it - for the time being - from a third round of UN sanctions, while also urging Teheran to heed demands it halt uranium enrichment.
Putin's careful stance on completing the Russian-built Bushehr nuclear plant suggested that Russia is seeking to preserve solid ties with Iran without angering the West.
"Russia is trying to sit in two chairs at the same time," Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor of Russia in Global Affairs magazine, told The Associated Press. A pledge to quickly complete the plant would send a "strong signal to the West that Russia is with Iran."
Putin showed he wouldn't be pressed into speeding up completion of the $1 billion contract to build Bushehr.
"I only gave promises to my mom when I was a small boy," he snapped when Iranian reporters prodded him to promise a quick launch.
At the same time, Putin - on the first trip to Iran by a Kremlin leader since Josef Stalin visited in 1943 for talks with Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt on World War II - said that Moscow wouldn't back down on its obligation to finish the plant. "Russia has clearly stated that it's going to complete this work," Putin said. "We are not renouncing this obligation."
Russia has warned that the plant would not be launched this fall as planned because Iran was slow in making payments. Iranian officials have angrily denied any payment arrears and accused the Kremlin of caving in to Western pressure.
Moscow also has ignored Iranian demands to ship fuel for the plant, saying it would be delivered only six months before the Bushehr plant goes on line. The launch date has been delayed indefinitely amid the payment dispute. Putin said the two sides were negotiating on revisions to the Bushehr contract, and once agreed a decision on fuel can be made.
The Caspian nations offered a degree of support for Iran's nuclear program, stressing in their declaration that any country that is signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty can "carry out research and can use nuclear energy for peaceful means without discrimination."
Putin underlined his disagreements with Washington on Iran last week, saying he saw no "objective data" to prove claims that Teheran is trying to construct nuclear weapons.
The Caspian Sea neighbors summit failed to reach an agreement on how to divide the sea's vast energy resources, but Putin and Ahmadinejad strongly warned outside powers to stay away from the region.
"All issues related to the Caspian should be settled exclusively by littoral nations," Ahmadinejad said.
Moscow has strongly opposed US-backed efforts to build pipelines to deliver Central Asian and Caspian hydrocarbons to the West bypassing Russia, through which all pipelines from the area currently flow. Russia has pushed for new pipelines to cross its territory as well.
Putin underlined that all pipeline projects should get approval by all five nations to take effect.
"Projects which may inflict a serious damage to the Caspian environment can't be and mustn't be implemented without a preliminary discussion by the Caspian Five and making a consensus decision in the interests of our common sea," Putin said.
The legal status of the Caspian has been in limbo since the 1991 Soviet collapse, leading to tension and conflicting claims to seabed oil deposits.