By NAZILA FATHI and C. J. CHIVERS
NYT Article Here
TEHRAN, Oct. 16 — President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia said at a summit meeting of five Caspian Sea nations in Iran on Tuesday that any use of military force in the region was unacceptable. In a declaration, the countries agreed that none would allow their territories to be used as a base for military strikes against any of the others.
“We should not even think of making use of force in this region,” Mr. Putin said.
Mr. Putin’s comments and the declaration come at a time when the United States has refused to rule out military action to halt Iran’s nuclear energy program, which it believes masks a desire to develop nuclear weapons. Iran says its program, including the enrichment of uranium, is solely for peaceful purposes.
Asked this morning about Mr. Putin’s remarks, Tony Fratto, the deputy White House press secretary, played them down, saying simply, “That sounds like a good policy.”
And later, Tom Casey, the deputy State Department spokesman, said, “I think the president’s made clear, and U.S. policy’s been consistent, that we’re pursuing a diplomatic path with respect to Iran.” He noted that Russia had joined in several unanimous votes at the United Nations Security Council demanding that Tehran end any uranium-enriching activities.
Mr. Putin arrived in Tehran on Tuesday for meetings with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran and leaders from three other Caspian Sea nations that have rich oil and gas resources, promising to use diplomacy to try to resolve the international debate over Iran’s nuclear program.
Later he had a meeting with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in which he said he had expressed a desire for “deeper” relations between the countries, Reuters reported.
Mr. Putin was the first Kremlin leader to travel to Iran since 1943, when Stalin attended a wartime summit meeting with Churchill and Roosevelt. His statements, which were consistent with his past positions cautioning against military action against Iran, were nonetheless stark in their setting and firmly emphasized his differences with the United States over the extent of Iran’s threat and the means to counter it.
“Not only should we reject the use of force, but also the mention of force as a possibility,” Mr. Putin said.
Russia has blocked a third set of sanctions against Iran at the United Nations that were intended to persuade Tehran to stop enrichment activities, which Western nations fear could lead to the development of nuclear weapons. Mr. Putin has emphasized the need for further dialogue and working through the International Atomic Energy Agency to ensure that Iran’s nuclear programs were for peaceful purposes.
He has further called into question the concerns of the United States, France and other European countries about Iran, saying that while he sought transparency in its nuclear program he had not seen clear evidence of any Iranian intention to make nuclear weapons.
In spite of Mr. Putin’s strong statements and the evident show of solidarity among the five countries bordering the Caspian Sea — Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, as well as Russia and Iran — significant regional tensions remain, particularly about the division of the sea’s main resource, oil.
Iran and the Soviet Union once had agreements for sharing its resources, including a water boundary. Before 1991, each country took 50 percent of the oil and gas from the sea.
But since the Soviet Union collapsed, the successor governments in the newly independent Caspian nations have quarreled over where their sea borders should be drawn.
Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan have expressed interest in building pipelines under the sea, which would allow Central Asian governments to bypass Russian pipelines as they ship their resources to the West. Russia opposes the idea, which would break its monopoly, citing environmental concerns.
In the absence of a multilateral agreement and mutually accepted borders, the Caspian nations are developing the oil resources as they see fit, although analysts have said that the absence of clear borders has limited the sector’s development.
“The division of the sea is not less important than the nuclear program,” said Ahmad Nateq Nouri, a former speaker of the Iranian Parliament, in a report carried by the Fars news agency.
But the issue of Iran’s nuclear program overshadowed the others. Mr. Putin’s remarks also underscored a longstanding unease in the Kremlin with what it has regarded as a creeping American military presence in Central Asia, a region once solely under Moscow’s control.
Since the terrorist attacks in the United States in 2001, the Pentagon has built a military base in Kyrgyzstan to support operations in Afghanistan, and has expanded its collaboration with Azerbaijan, including underwriting improvements to a former Soviet airfield there. It also has an agreement allowing military transport planes en route to Afghanistan to refuel in Turkmenistan, a country that has made neutrality a cornerstone of its foreign policy.
The American presence and collaboration in the region have alarmed Moscow, while Washington’s potential access to improved airfields in two countries bordering Iran — Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan — has fueled speculation that the airfields could support actions against Tehran.
Mr. Ahmadinejad intimated as much in his statements on Tuesday. “On many issues we have reached final agreement, but we also need collective cooperation,” he said. “The goal is to keep the sea clear of military competitions and keep foreigners out of the region.”
Although Mr. Putin and Mr. Ahmadinejad were resolute, their statements appeared to have more political than military significance, and were not a departure from the status quo. The United States does not have existing agreements with any Caspian nation to launch attacks on another. Rather, the Pentagon has negotiated limited bilateral agreements in the region that allow for flights to Afghanistan through local airspace, refueling, emergency landings and the like.
Moreover, with American military assets assembled in Iraq and other Persian Gulf nations, and aircraft carriers and submarines in the region as well, it was not clear that any of the Caspian countries would be essential for a raid on Iran.
The Caspian meeting also concluded without a clear agreement on territorial demarcation. The leaders said in the declaration that the sea would be used for peaceful purposes and its issues would be resolved by the coastal nations.
Mr. Putin and Mr. Ahmadinejad discussed the completion of a nuclear power plant that Russia has been building in the southern Iranian city of Bushehr. Russia has given various reasons for delays in completing the plant and delivering fuel for the start-up. Brushing that aside, Mr. Ahmadinejad told Mr. Putin that Iran was willing to have Moscow build two more plants in Bushehr, the ISNA news agency reported.
Mr. Putin was received by the Iranian foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, at the Tehran airport, according to state-run television. Mr. Putin, who had flown from Germany, where he met Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday, went ahead with the trip despite a report of a possible assassination plot against him in Iran.
Iran is counting on Russia and China, which have important trade ties with Iran, to use their veto power to oppose another round of sanctions in the Security Council. Russia has voted for two sets of sanctions, but has said that it will not support a third set without convincing evidence that Iran had a program to build nuclear weapons.
In addition to the nuclear power plants and business ties, Moscow has a long record of military collaboration with Iran, which relies on Soviet-era and Russian weapons and supplies for its armed forces. The Russian president’s visit appeared to underscore the many levels of bilateral ties.
Mr. Putin said the two countries planned to cooperate on space, aviation and energy issues, and suggested that the tensions with the West over Iran’s nuclear program had provided Russia a unique role. “Russia is the only country that is helping Iran to realize its nuclear program in a peaceful way,” he said.
Nazila Fathi reported from Tehran, and C. J. Chivers from Moscow. Brian Knowlton contributed reporting from Washington.