- The Washington Times - Friday, September 16, 2005

Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday broke with President Bush by indicating he thinks Iran is not interested in building nuclear weapons, but renewed his commitment to help the United States stop nuclear proliferation and aid in the global war on terrorism.

The two leaders met in the Oval Office yesterday, then held a joint press conference that touched on topics from Hurricane Katrina to global trade and the diplomatic conflicts with Iran and North Korea.

Mr. Bush said he is confident that “the world will see to it that Iran goes to the U.N. Security Council” for possible sanctions if it does not “live up to its agreements” to allow international inspection of its nuclear program.

“When that referral will happen is a matter of diplomacy,” Mr. Bush said. “And that’s what we talked about; we talked about how to deal with this situation diplomatically.”

While the U.S. severed official diplomatic and trade ties with Iran decades ago, Russia has maintained open relations with the Islamic nation and Mr. Bush has tried to use his good relationship with Mr. Putin to wield diplomatic influence.

Mr. Putin, however, gave no sign that he is willing to aggressively pressure Iran to give up its nuclear program, which intelligence reports suggest has been aided, in part, through Russian technology.

“We support all the agreements on nonproliferation, which includes Iran, among others, fully,” Mr. Putin said through an interpreter. “And we’ve always in this regard been open with our partners.”

Mr. Putin said he met with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the new president of Iran, on Wednesday and told him “directly” that Russia was against Iran becoming a nuclear power. Iran claims its pursuit of nuclear technology is peaceful, but the U.S. and most Western nations think Iran is hiding a budding weapons program.

The Associated Press reported yesterday that an Iranian exile claims that Iran’s military is building secret tunnels around the country to conceal materials it has acquired to develop nuclear weapons.

Alireza Jafarzadeh has exposed nuclear facilities in Iran in the past, but U.S. officials have judged some of his claims to be inaccurate. He presented detailed maps of the tunnels and facilities at a press conference yesterday.

Mr. Putin, however, indicated yesterday that he’s taking Iran at its word that the nuclear ambitions of a country awash in petroleum is peaceful.

“I heard from the Iranian leader a statement that Iran does not seek to acquire nuclear weapons,” Mr. Putin said. “That’s the first thing I want to share with you.”

Mr. Putin said he is afraid that applying too much pressure on Iran would result in a situation similar to that in North Korea, which has become more dangerous and isolated in the last 10 years.

“We are against the fact that Iran would become a nuclear power, and will continue to be so in any future circumstances,” Mr. Putin said.

Mr. Bush said the U.S. has “a strong ally in Russia in fighting the war on terror,” and cited the attack by Chechen Muslims on a school in Beslan last year as a reminder of a shared “duty to protect our citizens and work together to stop the killing.”

Mr. Putin said he and Mr. Bush agreed to “enhance the bilateral coordination” in each country “to combat terrorism,” and thanked the president for concentrating on Russia-U.S. relations at a time when the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is dominating his agenda.

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