Russian President Vladimir Putin has begun a Middle East tour, starting in Israel, which wants him to press Iran to abandon its uranium program. Putin will also visit senior West Bank Palestinians and Jordan.
Putin's visit, the first by a Russian president to Israel in seven years, coincides with a geopolitical crisis over war-torn Syria, which on Friday downed a Turkish military jet.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said Israeli leaders would "explain" to Putin their calls for increased international pressure on Iran to drop uranium enrichment. Tehran says its program is only for civilian purposes, but the US and other Western nations suspect it of striving for nuclear weapons capability.
Israel, which is widely believed to be nuclear-armed, has in recent months indirectly warned that it might even strike Iran's program military as a last resort if diplomatic efforts, such as last week's six-power talks with Iran in Moscow, remain inconclusive.
Under suspicion - Iranian uranium conversion at Isfahan
The head of the Russia desk at the Israeli foreign ministry, Yacov Livne said last week: "Of course, we prefer a diplomatic solution, but we will use all means to protest Israel's survival." Iran's leadership has in the past called for Israel's destruction.
Putin's schedule on Monday includes talks with Israel's Russian-speaking foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the inauguration of a monument in Netanya, near Tel Aviv, to mark the victory of the former Soviet Red Army over Nazi Germany in World War II.
Putin's top foreign policy aide, Yury Ushakov, said "the Syrian topic and the situation around Iran will be discussed in detail."
Syria overshadows Putin visit
Moscow and the West have been at loggerheads over the Syrian conflict, with the Kremlin refusing to support sanctions against its Soviet-era ally.
Syria, now under President Bashar Assad, has long been a major buyer of Russian arms and provides a Mediterranean port for Russia's navy.
In February, Russia and China vetoed a Western-backed UN Security Council resolution that backed an Arab League call for Assad to cede power and condemned his forces for violence that has claimed an estimated 15,000 lives, mostly civilians.
Russia seeking restoration of clout
In Moscow the editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs, Fyodor Lukyanov, said Russia finds itself geopolitically in a "very unpleasant situation" after the Middle East's recent political uprisings that included Libya and Egypt,
"It has essentially put itself in opposition to the entire Arab world," said Lukyanov.
Another Moscow-based expert, Georgy Mirsky of the Institute of the World Economy and International Relations said Putin wants "to minimize the negative effects of the Arab Spring" and to show that "Russia has not been pushed out of the picture."
Orthodox link in Jordan
On Tuesday, Putin is due to visit Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank and open a Russian scientific and cultural center in Bethlehem.
In Jordan, Putin and King Abdullah II are due to inaugurate a pilgrimage site for Russian Orthodox Christians.
A Putin ally, Patriarch Kirill, who heads the Russian Orthodox Church, visited Orthodox communities in Syrian and Lebanon last November and later called for international cooperation to protect Christian minorities in the Middle East.
ipj/ng (Reuters, AP, dpa, AFP)