'No Real Data' on Iranian Nuclear Ambitions, Putin Asserts

Russia halted work this year on Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant, pictured in 2003, but has expressed doubt that the country is pursuing a nuclear weapons program.
Russia halted work this year on Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant, pictured in 2003, but has expressed doubt that the country is pursuing a nuclear weapons program. (By Vahid Salemi -- Associated Press)
By Peter Finn and Robin Wright
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, October 11, 2007

MOSCOW, Oct. 10 -- President Vladimir Putin said Wednesday there is no evidence that Iran is trying to build nuclear weapons, reiterating a Kremlin position that has hamstrung efforts by the United States and European Union countries to impose tougher U.N. sanctions on Tehran.

"We have no real data to claim that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons, which makes us believe the country has no such plans," Putin said after a meeting in Moscow with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who suspects the opposite and supports a third and much harsher round of U.N. sanctions.

After being invited repeatedly by the Iranians, Putin is to make his first visit to Tehran next week, for a meeting of Caspian Sea nations. The nuclear issue is likely to dominate one-on-one talks with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other Iranian officials.

According to Russian officials and experts, Putin will probably reiterate his proposal that Russia enrich uranium for Iran's nuclear energy program, insist that Iran cooperate with international inspectors, and privately warn Iranian leaders that they cannot expect Russia to act as a shield in the face of sharpening Western concerns.

The Bush administration is counting on Putin to convey a tough message during his visit, U.S. officials said in Washington. But privately, officials have expressed concern, saying that Russia and China are blocking an escalation of Security Council pressure on Iran.

In Moscow, Russian officials and experts expressed skepticism about a major breakthrough, citing what they called Iran's ability to promise much while doing little.

Russia's calculations on Iran are quite different from those of Western countries, which want to punish the Tehran government into abandoning what they see as a barely concealed drive to obtain a bomb. Russia, for now, is largely playing for time and attempting to avoid a breach with either the West or Iran, a country it regards as a difficult but important partner.

"We are deeply convinced that there is unexhausted space for the use of diplomacy," said Dmitri Peskov, Putin's deputy spokesman, in an interview at the Kremlin. His government is counseling patience until the release of a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog organization, in November. Iran agreed in August to cooperate with the IAEA, and officials from the agency are currently in Tehran for talks.

"Iran is our friend," Peskov said. "We want to avoid a situation where a country is pushed into a corner [but] it's not a secret for Iran that Russia is determined to stay with the international community in ensuring nonproliferation and our own security."

In the Security Council, Russia has backed two rounds of mild sanctions in response to Iran's program to enrich uranium, a step toward obtaining weapons-grade material for a nuclear weapon. Russia has also stalled construction of a civilian nuclear power plant in Iran, ostensibly over a financial dispute.

Analysts here said Russia halted work on the Bushehr nuclear plant because of anger at Iran's snubbing of Putin's proposal to enrich uranium on Russian soil, a plan the Russian president believed Ahmadinejad was open to after the two men met in China last year. They also said the move signaled to Iran that Russia, now flush with cash from oil and gas, is no longer as dependent on trade with Iran as it was in the 1990s.

"Putin was very disappointed, and he is not a man to forgive or forget this," said Georgy Mirsky of the Institute of World Economy and International Relations. "There was a distinct cooling in relations after the meeting in China."

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