by Stuart Williams

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday warned against military action on Iran and backed its right to nuclear energy, during the first visit to the country by a Kremlin chief since World War II.

Putin, attending a summit meeting of Caspian Sea states, arrived in the Iranian capital amid heavy security and secrecy over his travel plans after reports that a squad of suicide bombers planned to kill him.

“It is important… that we not only do not use any kind of force but also do not even think about the possibility of using force,” Putin told the four other Caspian Sea leaders gathered for the summit.

“It is also important that we talk about the impossibility of using our territory for other countries to carry out aggression or military action against other Caspian littoral states.”

Along with the presidents of Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan, Putin declared the states “would not allow their territory to be used by a third country to commit military action against one of the parties.”

The United States has never ruled out military action against Tehran, but Iran’s northern neighbour Azerbaijan, a US ally, has repeatedly insisted it would not allow the US military to launch an attack from its soil.

Tuesday’s declaration also supported Iran’s right to nuclear energy, which the United States claims Tehran only wants as cover for an atomic weapons drive.

It backed the right of Non-Proliferation Treaty members to “research, produce and use nuclear energy for peaceful ends, without discrimination, within the framework of this treaty and the mechanisms of the UN nuclear watchdog.”

Putin’s comments highlighted the differences between Russia and the West, which is seeking more unilateral and UN sanctions to punish Tehran for its nuclear defiance.

Russia has insisted that diplomacy is the way to solve the standoff and has said it is not convinced by the Western claims Iran’s nuclear programme is military in nature. Tehran insists its atomic drive is entirely peaceful.

However, Putin was downbeat on the work to complete Iran’s first nuclear power plant in the southern city of Bushehr, which is being built by a Russian contractor.

He said the much-delayed project was being held back by “worn-out equipment” dating back to the time the project was started in the 1970s by Germany’s Siemens under the deposed shah.

“This is one of the problems preventing swift completion of the work in Bushehr,” Putin said after talks with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who he also invited to visit Russia.

But Putin reaffirmed that Moscow was committed to finishing the plant within a timetable the currently sees the plant going online in late 2008.

Putin also held talks with Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, when the Russian president said Moscow had an interest in a “strong Iran” and predicted that relations would expand further, state television reported.

Reports on Russian news agencies of an assassination threat had cast doubt over whether Putin would go ahead with the visit but to the relief of Iranian officials, his plane landed at Tehran’s Mehrabad airport early on Tuesday.

The arrangements for Putin’s departure were also being kept under wraps.

Russia’s Interfax news agency, citing a source in the Russian special services, had reported on Sunday that a group of suicide bombers would try to kill Putin in Tehran. The Kremlin said Putin had been notified of the report.

Iranian media reported that Putin’s armour-plated car had been air-freighted into Tehran ahead of his visit to ensure his security.

The Islamic republic has regularly hosted allies who share its antipathy towards the United States such as Belarus President Aleksander Lukashenko, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez.

But a visit by a statesman of Putin’s stature — his country is a veto-wielding permanent member of the UN Security Council — was a major event.

The last Kremlin chief to visit Iran was Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, who attended the famous conference of the “Big Three” World War II Allied powers in Tehran in 1943 alongside Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

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