Putin stands by Iran on hot issues

Times Staff Writer

Russian President Vladimir V. 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 Tehran’s right to a civilian nuclear program.

At the same time, Putin stopped short of unconditional support for 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.

Officials in Washington did not express disappointment about Putin’s visit or his comments, but face a growing challenge in dealing with the Russian leader’s maverick, frequently anti-U.S. public statements.

The image of Putin smiling in appearances with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as well as the leaders of three other nations served to highlight the differences between the Russian and American relationships with Iran, which Washington views as a threat to peace but Moscow considers a valuable ally and trading partner.

Days after having publicly dismissed 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 Washington, 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.

Washington 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. At the summit session, the five nations issued a declaration saying they would not allow their territories to be used for military strikes against any of the others.

Tom Casey, a State Department spokesman, said the U.S. did not object to Putin’s appearance with Ahmadinejad, and said the administration still believed that Moscow agreed with U.S. and European aims concerning Iran’s nuclear program.

“The Russian government position on this hasn’t changed,” Casey said. “I don’t think the Russian government has been, in any way, shape or form, trying to encourage Iran’s nuclear developments. In fact, they’ve been very concerned about it.”

However, senior U.S. officials earlier had expressed optimism that the Russian president would demonstrate greater public cooperation with American and Western European goals on Iran. The U.S. officials included Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who met with Putin in Moscow on Friday.

Tight security was the watchword for the summit, with black-clad Iranian security forces gripping submachine guns lining the upscale streets near the Sadabad Palace, a 19th century compound in north Tehran.

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 tension over Iran’s nuclear program.

“In case you haven’t noticed, Russia doesn’t have a lot of friends,” said Dimitri K. Simes, president of the Nixon Center, a Washington think tank, and a Russia expert. “Putin is looking for friends and strategic alliances where he can find them.”

The U.S. and Western European powers believe Iran is cloaking an effort to build nuclear weapons, while Tehran insists that it is seeking to produce only energy for civilian use. Washington and Paris hope to slap Iran with a third round of international sanctions, which Russia and China oppose.

Moscow and Beijing appear more willing than the U.S. to tolerate Iran enriching its own uranium so long as it clears up lingering doubts about the peaceful intent of its past nuclear research. To the long-standing dismay of Washington, Russia is also building a light-water nuclear power plant in the southern Iranian city of Bushehr and annually conducts $2 billion in trade with Iran.

Despite Putin’s rhetorical support, analysts say Moscow harbors misgivings about Iran. The Kremlin deplores Ahmadinejad’s belligerent talk, including his questioning of the Holocaust, and Iran’s defiant tone on its nuclear program. Russia fears that its association with Iran could damage its carefully cultivated relations with Israel and Europe, especially Germany.

Although he condemned any possible U.S. attack, Putin did not vow to stand up for Iran in case of one.

And although the Russian president’s presence at the summit might have lowered the Iranian government’s sense of isolation, Putin left Tehran without granting Iran any of the concessions it had hoped for, including a timetable for the completion of the Russian-built nuclear plant in Bushehr or a deal on divvying up Caspian Sea energy reserves.

Putin’s visit also signaled Russia’s claim to a large share of the oil- and gas-rich Caspian Basin, believed to hold the world’s third-largest energy reserves. Russia and Iran are united in opposition to U.S. plans for building pipelines that draw petroleum and natural gas out of the region without passing through either country.

Though Iran borders less than 15% of the Caspian, it insists on a fifth of its resources, a demand the other countries reject.

Ahmadinejad walked away from the meeting with no clear gains on the Caspian. But Putin’s visit itself might mark a milestone for Ahmadinejad, regardless of any tangible outcome.

The Russian is considered the first leader of a world power to visit Iran during Ahmadinejad’s presidency, which has been criticized at home for tarnishing relations with Persian Gulf countries and Europe and isolating Tehran diplomatically.

“His popularity at home has taken a serious fall since the imposition of a fuel-rationing program and failing economic policies which have caused an increase in inflation and unemployment,” said Meir Javedanfar, an Israel-based Iran expert. “Ahmadinejad and other pro-nuclear program people in Iran can [now] claim that [the nuclear] issue is putting Iran on the map as a serious regional player.”

Putin’s raising the specter of war, just after meeting with U.S. officials in Moscow, could be interpreted as a subtle warning to the Iranians that the Bush administration could attack from the north as well as from warships in the Persian Gulf.

“There’s a lot of symbolism involved because Putin is the only high-level leader from a significant country who is personally engaged on the nuclear issue,” said a European oil executive based in Tehran, speaking on condition of anonymity.

It has become a pattern for U.S. officials to offer muted reaction to Putin’s high-profile public criticisms. American officials have repeatedly explained that Putin has been more conciliatory in private meetings than in public statements.

Carlos Pascual, a longtime former U.S. official and expert on Russia, said the White House has been mistaken to take Putin’s private assurances at face value. He said the friendly face Putin presents behind closed doors is a case of “managing his client,” a talent acquired during his years as a KGB officer.

“Believe the bluster and don’t believe what’s said in private,” said Pascual, who served as ambassador to Ukraine under Bush and headed Russian affairs at the National Security Council during the Clinton administration. “We have it backwards.”

Special correspondent Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran and Times staff writers Peter Spiegel in Washington and David Holley in Moscow contributed to this report.