TEHRAN, Iran — Vladimir Putin issued a veiled warning Tuesday against any attack on Iran as he began the first visit by a Kremlin leader to Tehran in six decades — a mission reflecting Russian-Iranian efforts to curb U.S. influence.
He also suggested Moscow and Tehran should have a veto on Western plans for new pipelines to carry oil and natural gas from the Caspian Sea, using routes that would bypass Russian soil and break the Kremlin’s monopoly on energy deliveries from the region.
Putin came to Tehran for a summit of the five nations bordering the Caspian, but his visit was aimed more at strengthening efforts to blunt U.S. economic and military ties in the area.
Yet he also refused to set a date for completing Iran’s first nuclear reactor, trying to avoid an outright show of support for Iran’s defiance over its nuclear program.
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 West’s suspicions that the Iranians are secretly trying to develop nuclear weapons.
Putin seeks Caspian nation alliance
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made similar comments.
“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 five national leaders at the summit later signed a declaration that included a similar statement — an apparent reflection of Iranian fears that the United States could use Azerbaijan’s territory as a staging ground for military strikes in Iran.
Putin has warned against such attacks previously, but reiterating them in Tehran gave them greater resonance — particularly at a summit for a region where Moscow deeply resents U.S. and European attempts at greater influence.
The Russian leader also used the occasion to make a nod to Iran’s national pride — describing it as a “world power” and referring to the might of the ancient Persian empire.
Treading a fine line
In Iran’s confrontation with the West, Russia has tread a fine line, warning against heavy pressure on Iran and protecting it — for now — from a third round of U.N. sanctions, while urging Tehran to heed the Security Council’s demand that it halt uranium enrichment.
Video: Assassination plot? Putin’s careful stance on completing the Russian-built Bushehr nuclear power plant in Iran suggested the Kremlin is seeking to preserve solid ties with Tehran without angering the West.
“Russia is trying to sit in two chairs at the same time,” Fyodor Lukyanov, 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,” he said.
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 during World War II — said 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.”
Dispute over payments
Russia has warned that the Bushehr plant would not go on line this fall as originally planned, saying Iran was slow in making payments. Iranian officials have angrily denied being behind in its payments and accuse the Kremlin of caving in to Western pressure.
Moscow also has ignored Iranian demands to ship nuclear reactor fuel for the plant, saying it would be delivered only six months before the Bushehr plant begins operation. The launch date has been delayed indefinitely amid the payment dispute.
Putin said the two sides were negotiating revisions to the Bushehr contract, and once agreed a decision on fuel can be made.
The Caspian leaders offered a degree of support for the Iranian nuclear program, stressing in their joint statement that any country like Iran which has signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty has the right to “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 had seen no “objective data” showing Tehran is trying to construct nuclear weapons. Iran says it need enriched uranium to fuel nuclear reactors that will generate electricity.
The main issue before the summit was the Caspian Sea itself.
Divvying up territory in and around the inland sea — believed to contain the world’s third-largest reserves of oil and natural gas — has been a divisive issue among the five nations, and the leaders showed no signs of progress toward resolving the dispute.
Leaders warn against outside influence
The Caspian’s offshore borders have been in limbo since the 1991 Soviet collapse. The lack of agreement has led to tensions and conflicts over oil deposits, 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 strongly opposes U.S.- and European-backed efforts to build pipelines to deliver Central Asian and Caspian oil and gas to the West by bypassing Russia, through which all the region’s pipelines now flow. Russia has pushed for new pipelines to cross its territory as well.
Putin argued that all pipeline projects in the region should require the approval by all five Caspian nations to take effect, a view that would give each capital a veto.
“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.
But the idea was barely mentioned in comments by the leaders of the former Soviet republics of Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, which are striving to balance their relations with Russia, the West and Asia.
In Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital, political analyst Ilgar Mamedov said the veto idea was only “Putin’s opinion.” Caspian nations “are independent and act in accordance with their own interests,” he said.
© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.