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Russian leader Putin, visiting Iran, offers veiled warnings against US

    TEHRAN, Iran — Russian leader Vladimir Putin met his Iranian counterpart Tuesday and implicitly warned the U.S. not to use a former Soviet republic to stage an attack on Iran. He also said countries bordering the Caspian Sea must jointly back any oil pipeline projects in the region.
    At a summit of the five nations that border the inland Caspian Sea, Putin said none of the nations’ territory should be used by any outside countries for use of military force against any nation in the region. It was a clear reference to long-standing rumors that the U.S. was planning to use Azerbaijan, a former Soviet republic, as a staging ground for any possible military action against Iran.
    ‘‘We are saying that no Caspian nation should offer its territory to third powers for use of force or military aggression against any Caspian state,’’ Putin said.
    Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad also underlined the need for solidarity.
    ‘‘The Caspian Sea is an inland sea and it only belongs to the Caspian states, therefore only they are entitled to have their ships and military forces here,’’ he said.
    A State Department spokesman, Tom Casey, said the United States is not planning military action against Iran.
    ‘‘We are pursuing a diplomatic course with respect to Iran that includes with respect to its nuclear program as well as with respect to its support for terrorism and other issues that are out there,’’ he said.
    Putin refused to set a date for the start-up of Iran’s first nuclear power plant, to be built by Russia.
    ‘‘I only gave promises to my mom when I was a small boy,’’ Putin told Iranian reporters, when asked whether he could promise that the plant that Russia is building would be launched before his term ends next May.
    At the same time, he said, ‘‘We are not going to renounce our obligations.’’
    Putin’s careful stance suggested that Russia is seeking to preserve solid ties with Iran without angering the West. A clear pledge by Putin to quickly finish the plant would embolden Iran and could complicate international talks on the nuclear standoff.
    Putin, whose trip to Tehran is the first by a Kremlin leader since World War II, warned that energy pipeline projects crossing the Caspian could only be implemented if all five nations that border the sea support them.
    Putin did not name a specific country, but his statement underlined Moscow’s strong opposition to U.S.-backed efforts to build pipelines to deliver hydrocarbons to the West, bypassing Russia.
    ‘‘Projects that may inflict serious environmental damage to the region cannot be implemented without prior discussion by all five Caspian nations,’’ he said.
    Other nations bordering the Caspian Sea and in attendance at the summit are: Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan.
    The legal status of the Caspian — believed to contain the world’s third-largest energy reserves — has been in limbo since the 1991 Soviet collapse, leading to tension and conflicting claims to seabed oil deposits.
    Iran, which shared the Caspian’s resources equally with the Soviet Union, insists that each coastal nation receive an equal portion of the seabed. Russia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan want the division based on the length of each nation’s shoreline, which would give Iran a smaller share.
    Putin’s visit took place despite warnings of a possible assassination plot and amid hopes that personal diplomacy could help offer a solution to an international standoff on Iran’s nuclear program.
    Putin has warned the U.S. and other nations against trying to coerce Iran into reining in its nuclear program and insists peaceful dialogue is the only way to deal with Tehran’s defiance of a U.N. Security Council demand that it suspend uranium enrichment.
    ‘‘Threatening someone, in this case the Iranian leadership and Iranian people, will lead nowhere,’’ Putin said Monday during his trip to Germany. ‘‘They are not afraid, believe me.’’
    Iran’s rejection of the council’s demand and its previous clandestine atomic work has fed suspicions in the U.S. and other countries that Tehran is working to enrich uranium to a purity usable in nuclear weapons. Iran insists it is only wants lesser-enriched uranium to fuel nuclear reactors that would generate electricity.
    Putin’s visit to Tehran is being closely watched for any possible shifts in Russia’s carefully hedged stance in the nuclear standoff.
    The Russian president underlined his disagreements with Washington last week, saying he saw no ‘‘objective data’’ to prove Western claims that Iran is trying to construct nuclear weapons.
    Putin emphasized Monday that he would negotiate in Tehran on behalf of the five permanent U.N. Security Council members — United States, Russia, China, Britain and France — and Germany, a group that has led efforts to resolve the stalemate with Tehran.
    ———
    Associated Press writers Ali Akbar Dareini and Nasser Karimi contributed to this report.

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