Putin uses nuclear talks in Tehran to warn US against attacking Iran

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The Independent Online

The Russian President, Vladimir Putin, carried out a delicate balancing act last night during the first visit to Tehran by a Kremlin leader since Stalin, by warning the US against military strikes against Iran while continuing to withhold nuclear fuel from the country's sole reactor.

Speaking after private talks with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad focusing on Iran's nuclear programme, Mr Putin said Russia would respect its obligations to provide fuel for the nuclear reactor being built on the Persian Gulf at Bushehr, but said "legal and financial" details needed to be clarified first. The United States appears to have successfully leaned on Russia to hold up the delivery of the fuel to the Bushehr plant, whose start date has been delayed indefinitely.

But earlier, Mr Putin said: "We should not even think of making use of force in this region," as Russia joined a declaration by Caspian Sea leaders that warned outside powers against using their territories for launching military action, in a veiled reference to possible US use of Azerbaijan as a staging post.

The Russian President was also due to meet the Iranian supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, who is in charge of Iran's overall nuclear policy, for talks that are being followed with interest by Western governments. Russia says it shares Western concerns about possible nuclear proliferation on its borders, but Mr Putin said last week that he had seen no "objective evidence" to suggest that Iran was working on a nuclear bomb.

A State Department spokesman, Tom Casey, said the US expected Mr Putin to "convey the concerns shared by all of us about the failure of Iran to comply with the international community's requirements concerning its nuclear programme".

Mr Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said that Russia backs Iran's "legal right to alternative energy sources" and believes in a diplomatic route out of the standoff with Iran, which says that a religious fatwa bars it from developing weapons of mass destruction and insists that it wants nuclear power to generate electricity. However, the US and European states continue to believe that Iran could be working on a military programme under cover of a civil programme, and the Bush administration refuses to rule out military strikes.

EU foreign ministers instructed experts on Monday to look into possible additional EU sanctions in support of UN sanctions, at a time when Russia and China are resisting a new round of UN measures that would expand existing diplomatic and financial embargoes to punish Iran for failing to halt uranium enrichment.