Putin Prefers Talks to Pressure on Iran

President Vladimir Putin will show his preference for dialogue with Iran when he visits Tehran on Tuesday, amid calls from the West for stronger pressure on Iran to curb suspected plans for a nuclear bomb.

Putin, the first Kremlin chief to visit Iran since Stalin went in 1943, will formally be in Tehran for a summit of Caspian Sea states.

But a meeting with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad could give Putin a chance to seek a peaceful compromise over Tehran's nuclear program and to demonstrate his independence from Washington on Middle East issues.

"Putin is going to Iran to show the importance of continuing diplomacy," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

Putin will tell Ahmadinejad that the government accepts Iran's right to use nuclear energy but wants it to open up its nuclear program to international inspectors to prove it is peaceful, Peskov added.

The West suspects Iran of wanting to develop atomic weapons under the cover of a civil nuclear program. Iran says its program is intended to generate power so it can export more oil and gas.

Russia, a veto-wielding member of the UN Security Council, has backed two sets of mild sanctions against Iran to encourage it to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

But Moscow, alarmed by rumors that the United States could launch a military strike on Iran, says it will not back further sanctions unless the IAEA says Iran is not cooperating or proves it is working on weapons.

"We have no real data to claim that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons, which makes us believe the country has no such plans. But we agree that Iran's programs must be transparent," Putin said after meeting French President Nicolas Sarkozy last week.

The European Union is expected to step up pressure on Iran this week, warning Tehran that it will face tougher sanctions unless it halts uranium enrichment, which is viewed as suspicious by the West.

After talks with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Friday, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned the West against bypassing the United Nations to impose sanctions against Iran.

But he also pledged that in Tehran Putin would "continue the current line of work with the Iranian leadership, which reflects the collective position of the Six [states in talks with Iran] and the UN Security Council."

The six nations negotiating with Iran on its nuclear program are the United States, Russia, China, France, Germany and Britain. Putin's visit to Tehran has been repeatedly postponed since 2005.

The government argues that excessive pressure against Tehran could be counter-productive and would destabilize the mainly Muslim region next to its southern borders. But economic reasons are also important for Moscow.

Analysts say the Bushehr plant, the completion of which the government has postponed, quoting technical problems, could become a major bargaining chip.

"I think Putin may propose that the Iranians give up uranium enrichment in exchange for Russian fuel for Bushehr," said Rajab Safarov, head of the Center of Iranian Studies.