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Sat 31 May 2008 08:52 PM

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Iran wins Russia's support over nuclear claims

But Tehran should avoid 'irritating' neighbours and IAEA compliance an issue, Russian PM says.

Iran is not trying to acquire nuclear weapons but Tehran should avoid "irritating" its neighbours, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said Saturday in an interview with French newspaper Le Monde.

Putin, who was in Paris for two days of meetings with President Nicolas Sarkozy and other French leaders, said there was no indication Iran was building its own nuclear arsenal.

But he admitted that Iran's compliance with investigations by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was still a "point to be resolved".

Asked if Iran was trying to acquire nuclear weapons, Putin replied: "I don't believe so. Nothing indicates it."

"The Iranians are a proud people," he went on. "They want to enjoy their independence and exercise their legitimate right to civil nuclear power.

"I am serious. On a legal level, Iran has infringed nothing at the moment. They have the same right to enrichment [of uranium]. The paperwork says so. Iran is accused of not displaying all its programmes to the IAEA. This point remains to be resolved...."

Putin stressed that Russia was opposed to Iran achieving a nuclear-power status.

"That is our principled position," he said. "Using nuclear weapons in a region as small as the Middle East would be synonymous with suicide. Whose interests would it serve? The Palestinians? Hardly, the Palestinians would cease to exist..."

Iran is accused by Western powers, including the US and France, of seeking to possess nuclear weapons under the cover of a civil nuclear energy programme.

Earlier this week, the IAEA expressed "serious concern" that Iran is still hiding information about alleged studies into making nuclear warheads and defying UN demands to suspend uranium enrichment.

Putin underlined that he had repeatedly told the Tehran government that it "doesn't find itself in an antiseptic zone, but in a volatile region."

"We ask them to take that into account, and not irritate their neighbours or the international community, and prove they have no ulterior motives."

Tehran is already the subject of three United Nations Security Council resolutions imposing sanctions aimed at suspending its uranium enrichment programme and cooperating fully with the IAEA.

Moscow has recently called on the major powers involved in negotiations with Iran to give Tehran "guarantees" about its own security.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is expected in Italy next week for a three-day UN Food and Agriculture [FAO] conference.

That has prompted the Israeli Ambassador in Rome, Gideon Meir, to call the Iranian regime "one of the worst in the world," in an interview with the Italian newspaper La Repubblica Saturday.

"We are facing one of the worst regimes currently in power in the world," Meir said. "I want to make one thing clear: no-one is referring to the Iranian people, but to their regime.

"To see an international organisation like the FAO invite and welcome a leader like Ahmadinejad, who has clearly and strongly declared that Israel must be destroyed, that a state which is a member of the United Nations must be destroyed, is a great sadness to me," he added.