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Tue 16 Oct 2007 09:51 AM

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Plot to kill Putin overshadows Tehran visit

Russian premier arrives in Iran for talks on Islamic republic's nuclear row with West.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, brushing off the threat of a reported plot to assassinate him, arrived in Iran on Tuesday for talks with Iran's leaders focusing on Tehran's nuclear row with the West.

In the first visit by a Kremin leader since Josef Stalin's in 1943, Putin will meet Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is fighting calls from Western powers to stop nuclear work that Washington says is aimed at building atomic bombs. Tehran says its intentions are peaceful.

Putin was welcomed by Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki at the airport in Tehran, where he is attending a summit of five Caspian Sea states aimed at bringing them closer to a deal on dividing the sea and its huge oil and gas resources.

Putin, whose tough-guy image has made him hugely popular at home, is visiting the Islamic Republic ahead of parliamentary elections in December and amid speculation on how he will maintain a grasp on power in Russia after he quits the top job.

Kremlin officials said on Monday that plans for the visit were in doubt after a Russian news agency report said suicide bombers and kidnappers were hatching a plot to kill him there. Iran said the report was baseless. Putin shrugged it off.

Russian officials said Iran's nuclear programme, which the West believes masks a covert bid to build atomic bombs, will be top of the agenda for bilateral talks. Russia has been resisting Western efforts to toughen sanctions on Iran.

"If we have a chance to keep up these direct contacts, then we will do it, hoping for a positive, mutually advantageous result," Putin said in Germany before his arrival.

Tehran says the visit by Putin and other leaders at the Caspian summit shows US efforts to isolate it are failing.

In Russia, the plot reports dominated air waves and analysts said they could galvanize support for Putin amidst public anxiety over what may follow his two successive terms in power.

"I think this is nothing to do with Iran and nothing to do with terrorism. I think this is an example of the struggle inside Putin's administration," said Nikolai Zlobin, director of the Russian and Eurasia Project at the Washington-based World Security Institute.

Patience

Over the past week, some EU states have stepped up calls with Washington for a third UN Security Council resolution for sanctions against Iran if it does not halt its atomic programme.

But Putin, who resists Western pressure in a group of six world powers for harsher penalties, said patience and talks were the best path and trying to intimidate Tehran was "hopeless".

Iran denies it is seeking nuclear weapons.

A planned private meeting with Ahmadinejad could give Putin a chance to seek a compromise on the nuclear issue.

Moscow has been alarmed by talk in the West of a possible war over Iran's atomic plans if diplomacy does not work.

Washington has refused to rule out military action if other routes fail, a position repeated on Monday by US Defence Secretary Robert Gates who said "all options" were open.

Putin is also expected to meet Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who under Iran's clerical rule has ultimate authority and the final say in all state matters such as nuclear policy.

Putin's talks are also likely to cover a dispute over Russian delays in building Bushehr atomic power plant, Iran's first. Russia says Iran is behind in payments but Iran says it is up to date and says Moscow is bowing to Western pressure.

"Iranian and Russian technical committees are passing the final stage of their talks... We hope to hear good news about Bushehr power plant in the next hours," Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said on Monday.

The other states at the Caspian summit alongside Iran and Russia are Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. Officials do not expect a breakthrough on long-running differences over how to divide the sea and carve up its mineral wealth. - Reuters

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