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RIA Novosti
October 15, 2007
Vladimir Putin's first visit to Iran

MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political correspondent Pyotr Goncharov) - Tehran has reached its goal. Russian President Vladimir Putin will travel to Iran for an official visit. He combines this visit with his participation in the Caspian Summit.

Indicatively, it was the Russian president who proposed holding the second summit in Tehran after the first summit in Ashgabat fell through in 2002.

Because of its nuclear program, Iran is the focus of much attention from the international community, especially from the United States and Europe. Russia's position on Iran largely differs from that of the United States and Europe, so it is clear that Putin's visit to Iran will be a landmark. During his recent trip to Moscow, French President Nicholas Sarkozy spoke more than once about the importance of his Russian counterpart's upcoming visit to Tehran.

Understandably, Russia's special position on Iran is largely determined by the character of their bilateral relations. Russia gives Iran a key role in its regional policy. Historically Russian and Iranian interests complemented each other in the Caucasus, the Caspian region and Central Asia.

This is why Tehran has called Russia and Iran "strategic allies." Moscow prefers to show more restraint and qualifies bilateral relations as a regional "strategic partnership." But this has proved sufficient for preserving regional stability. It is suffice to recall that both Russia and Iran largely contributed to the settlement of the civil war in Tajikistan.

Recently, Iran has considerably increased its economic expansion in Central Asia, Russia's traditional domain. Moscow welcomes this effort because it cannot encompass this important region single-handedly. Moscow's reasoning is simple - the more niches that are occupied by Iran means that fewer are occupied by the United States, Turkey or China.

As the president of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), Iran helped Moscow during the most critical period of its Chechnya policy. The OIC reluctantly agreed to consider Chechnya Russia's domestic problem, largely because of Iran's position.

Iran has proved to be a good partner and one that Moscow would like to keep. At the same time, Iran is often a difficult partner, and sometimes unpredictable, but it is true that "strategic" partners are never easy and the sides must always come to terms.

Because Putin's official visit to Tehran is brief, he will likely to discuss urgent issues. The main issue will be the nuclear power plant in Bushehr, which Russia has delayed building year after year.

Iranian experts and some of their Russian counterparts, such as Radjab Safarov, the director of the Center for the Studies of Modern Iran, believe that the Bushehr plant problem has been acquiring more and more political connotations. It is no accident that Tehran has suggested including the head of Rosatom (Federal Atomic Energy Agency), Sergei Kirienko, in the delegation. The Iranians are happy to see Kirienko because Putin will have to guarantee his commitments on when the plant will be commissioned.

The Russian delegation may resume the discussion of joint uranium enrichment on Russian territory. At one time, when Iran had to choose between a moratorium on uranium enrichment or sanctions, it started discussing the creation of a Russian-based joint venture to produce nuclear fuel. Iran's current position on the topic is vague, which at times sounds humiliating for Russia, and therefore must be cleared up. Clarifying Iran's position is especially important since Putin initiated the idea of an international nuclear fuel producing center when the Iranian nuclear program was once again scrutinized by the international community.

Moscow's position on Iran's nuclear program is well known. Putin has stated, "We have no evidence of Iran's intention to produce nuclear weapons. Therefore, we proceed from the premise that Iran has no such plans. But we share the concern of other partners and believe that Iran's programs must be transparent."

At the meeting with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Putin will most likely add that Russia hopes for Iran's cooperation in removing the concern over its nuclear program as required by the latest resolution of the UN Security Council.

However, the Caspian summit will be the main event in Tehran during the visit and will decide the problem of the Caspian status.

Whether a coincidence or not, Iran is the only country that shares Russia's position on this issue, which differs from Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. Russia and Iran believe that the lake's status should keep non-regional countries away from its basin. This is the main issue of the summit and all other Caspian problems are secondary to it.