MOSCOW, June 20: Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Friday that Iranian leaders had just assured him Tehran had no plans to develop nuclear weapons and would soon sign up a UN protocol on closer inspections of its atomic programme.

Mr Putin also used an annual Kremlin news conference to play down tensions with the United States over its decision to launch the Iraqi campaign despite loud protests from Russia and other world powers.

The Kremlin has used nationally televised Putin press appearances to spruce up the Russian leader’s at-times enigmatic image.

This latest appearance came less than one year before Putin faces re-election and was attended by 700 journalists — 130 of them foreign correspondents — who grilled Putin about Russia’s often conflicting position concerning the Middle East and particularly Iran.

Putin conceded that US President George Bush had made Iran the focus of their recent meetings at the 300th anniversary festivities in Saint Petersburg and the Group of Eight summit in Evian, France.

The Russian leader’s comments still remained somewhat ambiguous — he gave no hint that Moscow planned to halt construction of Iran’s first nuclear power plant while adding that Tehran had assured him it was coming to terms with the international community over its nuclear program.

“Two days ago I spoke to President (Mohammad) Khatami, at his own initiative, and he once again confirmed that Iran had no plans to develop nuclear weapons,” he told a press conference that stretched on for two and three quarter hours.

Putin revealed the Kremlin had been informed without revealing his sources that Iran was prepared to sign the additional Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) protocol as the international community has demanded.

“According to information that we have in hand, the leadership of Iran is ready to join all protocols, to all demands of the IAEA, concerning control of (Iran’s) nuclear program.

Iran has repeatedly rejected calls to sign the additional protocol.

Putin said he and Bush were coming ever closer over their positions on Iran and that Moscow was using its influence over Tehran to make sure it cooperated with UN weapons inspectors.

“The problem of Iran was a subject of special attention during my meetings with President Bush,” Putin said.

“We gave this issue special attention and I have to say, just like I said at the press conference after my meeting with Bush in Saint Petersburg — the positions of Russia and the United States on this issue are closer than they appear at first glance,” he added.

Putin said that constructive negations were being conducted with Washington on both Iran and Iraq.

FOREIGN POLICY VISION: In his speech President Vladimir Putin outlined a broad foreign policy vision that has Russia mediating the multiplying conflicts between a hawkish US administration and its potential enemies abroad.

That message also seemed to confirm that Putin believed any tensions sparked by the war in Iraq were over — and that Russia had abandoned its initial ambitions to form a European alliance counterbalancing the United States.

Mr Putin devoted a large part of the briefing to tricky foreign disagreements on issues ranging from Iran and Iraq to the best way of handling the nuclear hot potato that is North Korea.

His message seemed simple: Washington needs Moscow to safely settle these crises. The image of Russia as an isolated and weakened former superpower was not one that Mr Putin had in mind.

“Two days ago I spoke to President (Mohammad) Khatami, at his own initiative,” the president told the nation and some 130 foreign reporters attending his 160-minute briefing.

Mr Putin said Khatami “once again confirmed that Iran had no plans to develop nuclear weapons” and that other sources in Tehran had informed him that the country would soon sign up to a closer inspections program with the United Nations.—AFP

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