Thu, Oct 11, 2007 - Page 6 News List

Putin downplays fears over Iran's nuclear program

AFP , MOSCOW

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, left, shares a light moment with Russian President Vladimir Putin during their meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow yesterday.

PHOTO: EPA

Russian President Vladimir Putin refused yesterday to bend to Western pressure over Iran, saying after talks with French President Nicolas Sarkozy that he did not believe the Islamic republic was trying to build a nuclear bomb.

"We do not have information that Iran is trying to create a nuclear weapon. We operate on the principle that Iran does not have those plans," Putin told journalists after the end of the talks with Sarkozy in Moscow.

He added that Russia shared the West's desire for Iran's nuclear program, in which Russia is building the first civilian power station, to be "absolutely transparent."

The Kremlin leader's statement reaffirmed an East-West split over Iran. Moscow supports Tehran in rejecting accusations by Washington and in EU capitals that the country is hiding a secret bomb making project behind its Russian-backed civilian atomic program.

Russia has also been reluctant to back Western calls for tougher sanctions aimed at forcing Iran to halt sensitive nuclear activities.

Sarkozy said after his talks in the Kremlin that Putin's readiness was "important."

"After that, there might be a difference in the analysis," he said.

But there was no sign of confirmation that Franco-Russian positions on the controversy had "moved closer," as Sarkozy had indicated following a dinner with Putin on Tuesday night.

This was the first visit as president to Moscow for the new French leader, who stands out among Western leaders for his firm criticism of human rights in Putin's Russia.

Earlier, Sarkozy told students at Moscow's State Technical University that Russia must embrace political freedom.

"Build a democratic society in Russia and the world will be grateful," he said.

Sarkozy was also due to meet with the leaders of Russia's most active human-rights organization Memorial.

However, speaking at the press conference with Putin yesterday, Sarkozy avoided controversy, saying: "France does not want to give lessons to anyone."

On Kosovo, another issue sharply dividing Russia and the Western powers, Sarkozy appealed for European countries to remain united, since "this is foremost a European issue."

However, he said that it was important "that the discussion remains open with our Russian friends."

Russia has sided with Serbia in opposing French and other Western backing for independence in the ethnic-Albanian dominated province, currently administered by the UN.

Sarkozy, who met Putin for the first time at the G8 summit in Germany in June, has worked to steer France closer to the US, but he stressed that this did not mean greater confrontation with Russia.

"I am a friend of the United States, but that does not mean a vassal ... I have disagreements with the United States. The world cannot be ruled over by one power, even the main one," he told the students.

Putin praised strong growth in French-Russian bilateral trade and Sarkozy announced that French companies were keen to buy into Russia's state-controlled gas giant Gazprom.

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