Putin to visit embattled Iran as leaders meet
on dividing land-locked energy-rich Caspian

By Olga Nedbayeva
Agence France-Presse

RUSSIAN President Vladimir Putin's trip to Iran this week, the first by a Kremlin leader in three decades, comes at a vital moment for the Islamic republic's controversial Russian-backed nuclear program.

Mr Putin will be attending a summit of Caspian Sea countries on Tuesday, joined by the leaders of Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan for talks focusing on how to divide the landlocked and energy-rich Caspian.

But his visit also throws a potential diplomatic lifeline to Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who faces international isolation and massive U.S.-led pressure against his nuclear power project.

His critics in the West allege it has a secret military component.

"This is crucial against the background of tensions around the Iranian nuclear program," said Alexander Shumilin, a specialist on Middle Eastern issues.

The last Kremlin leader to visit Iran was Soviet chief Leonid Brezhnev, 32 years ago.

Since the Soviet collapse Russia has emerged as one of Iran's most important partners and a bulwark against Western and Israeli diplomatic pressure.
For Mr Putin the regional meeting provides a handy opportunity to sit down with Mr Ahmadinejad in bilateral talks without actually going as far as a formal summit.

"Mr Putin has been invited numerous times to make an official visit to Iran, but that kind of visit would have been considered a challenge to the West," said Radzhab Safarov, at the Centre for Studies on Modern Iran.

Mr Ahamadinejad could certainly use some powerful friends and Russia, which is building Iran's first nuclear power station in the Bushehr, is the most crucial ally of all.

The International Atomic Energy Agency and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana are due to report to the UN Security Council and the major powers next month on Iran's level of cooperation with nuclear inspectors.

This comes amid growing pressure from Washington and its allies against Iran, which they claim is deceiving inspectors in order to hide a bomb-making project behind a civilian electricity generating program.

Yet Russia has so far resisted calls for new, tougher sanctions to punish Iran. On Wednesday, Mr Putin rejected Western claims, saying he sees no threat from the Islamic republic.

"We do not have information that Iran is trying to create a nuclear weapon. We operate on the principle that Iran does not have those plans," he told French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Moscow.

Russia is also ignoring U.S. complaints by selling Iran sophisticated weapons, not least $US700 million ($A779.03 million) worth of Tor-M1 ground-to-air missiles this year — a system Iran says would be used to protect nuclear sites from air attack.

But as constant delays to the completion of Bushehr indicate, the Iranian-Russian partnership is far from smooth.

Russia has angered Tehran by inviting the U.S. military to use a radar station in the Caucasus region to monitor Iran as part of a proposed anti-missile shield, said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor at the journal Russia in Global Politics.

The result is that Moscow "has bad relations with the West because of Iran, but at the same time a worsening relationship with Iran itself," Mr Lukyanov said.

The best Russia can hope for, analysts say, is to carve out a unique role as mediator within the six-nation group — Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States — in charge of the Iran dossier.

Russia is "practically the only partner that Iran wants to see as a mediator," Alexander Shumilin said.

But events may escape Moscow's control, warned Anton Khlopkov, at the PIR think tank in Moscow.

"Europe and the United States stress the importance of unity among the six, but they are on the side of unilateral sanctions and even military action. Russia risks seeing a decision taken without consensus."