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Putin Cagey on Iran Issue After Discussions With Merkel

DW staff (nda)January 16, 2006

German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrived in Moscow hoping for a firm offer of support from President Vladimir Putin on the subject of Iran. She left Monday wondering what stance, if any, Russia would take.

Putin urged care over Iran while Merkel hoped for a more concrete responseImage: AP

Angela Merkel arrived on her first visit to Russia since becoming German chancellor Monday hoping to use the "strategic partnership" between the two countries to persuade President Vladimir Putin to join the European Union and the United States in pressuring Iran.

While other topics such as energy collaborations and human rights were breached, the most pressing subject of Merkel's three-hour discussions with Putin was the escalating Iranian nuclear crisis. Emerging from the talks, the Russian president gave little away about what action his country would be supporting.

"As for Russia, and Germany, and our European partners and the United States -- we have very close positions on the Iranian problem," President Putin said at the joint press conference after the talks.

But he warned against taking "abrupt" steps over Iran's nuclear ambitions and said Tehran had not ruled out a Russian proposal to enrich uranium for Iran on Russian territory.

Putin says move carefully

"We need to move very carefully in this area. I personally do not allow myself a single careless announcement and do not allow the foreign ministry to make a single uncertain step," he said. "In any event, we must work on the Iranian problem very carefully, not allowing abrupt, erroneous steps."

Angela Merkel in Russland Moskau Wladimir Putin
Merkel still hopes that further discussions will lead to an agreementImage: AP

Merkel, who announced another meeting with Putin would take place in the Siberian town of Tomsk in April, said that further discussions were needed on Iran. "With the next steps we take, the closer we will be to an agreement," she told the press conference.

German government officials had made it clear before the chancellor arrived in Moscow that the Iran issue would be the main discussion point between the two leaders, as it had become during Merkel's visit to Washington last week.

The chancellor had arrived for talks with President George W. Bush on Friday just hours after the foreign ministers of Germany, Britain and France had announced that talks with Iran were at "a dead end."

Merkel hoped Putin would join in

Both Merkel and Bush agreed that while a diplomatic solution would continue to be sought, the next step in dealing with Tehran would be to call on the IAEA, the United Nations nuclear watchdog, to approve a referral to the UN Security Council after holding an emergency session.

Angela Merkel in Russland Moskau
Chancellor Merkel's tour has turned into a search for diplomatic supportImage: AP

Fluent Russian speaker Merkel left for Moscow hoping that she could persuade Putin to stand side by side with the EU and US and offer a common approach to Iran's refusal to abandon uranium enrichment technology that could enable it to pursue a military nuclear program.

The chancellor was encouraged by recent news that Putin's government had been annoyed by Tehran's rejection of Moscow's offer of a joint venture within Russian borders that would allow Iran to produce nuclear fuel for peaceful purposes under the watchful eye of the Kremlin.

Enrichment offer still being considered

However, Putin announced that the deal was still on the table. "We have heard various points of view from our Iranian partners. The Iranian foreign ministry, notably, has said that it does not rule out accepting our proposal," he said.

Angela Merkel in Russland Moskau Wladimir Putin
Their business ties with Iran will be affected if sanctions are broughtImage: AP

Both Germany and Russia stand to lose out economically if Iran is brought before the UN Security Council. If a referral escalates the stand-off further, Germany and Russia -- which have significant business interests and links with Iran -- could be severely out of pocket, particularly if sanctions are brought against the Islamic state.

But while Putin's stance shows that a nuclear-armed Iran is not in Russia's interests, his caginess may hint at an underlying desire to protect business ties.

Russia likely to abstain in any Security Council vote

Some sources believe that Russia will help the EU and US cause by not voting against Security Council action in the UN but will also cover its own back by abstaining from the vote. Putin's statement Monday suggests a strong yes vote in line with the EU and US is highly unlikely.

On the issue of Russia's human rights record and the continuing conflict in the war-ravaged breakaway republic of Chechnya, Merkel admitted that she could not find any "common ground" with the Russian leader.

"We have discussed subjects on which we don't share the same opinion, notably on Chechnya and the North Caucasus ... I will do everything to ensure that European programs contribute to the positive development of the region," Merkel said.

Divided on NGO law

Merkel expressed support for plans to build a gas pipeline direct from Russia under the Baltic Sea to Germany and other western European countries. "The north European gas project is very important for Europe and for Germany. It is a strategic project that is not aimed at anyone," Merkel said. "The development of our relationship in the economic sphere takes one's breath away," she added.

The chancellor also highlighted concerns about a disputed draft law on non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Concerning the proposed NGO law, "there has been a lot of criticism; a part of those criticisms have been taken into account," Merkel said. "It will be necessary to monitor the way in which this law is applied in practice," she said.

Putin defended the law on NGOs -- seen by activists as an attempt to rein in Western funding of human rights and democracy groups -- saying it was aimed at bringing greater transparency to NGO financing. "We Russians are the greatest partisans for the development of democracy" in Russia, he said.