TEHRAN, Iran -- Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, appearing side by side with his Iranian counterpart at a five-nation summit here yesterday, made a powerful show of support for America's regional arch-enemy, drawing the line against any attack on Iran and reaffirming Iran's right to civilian use of nuclear energy.
While Putin stopped short of unconditional support of the Iranian regime, the tenor of his remarks appeared at odds with earlier suggestions from the Bush administration that Putin might take a more pro-Western stance.
Days after publicly dismissing U.S. plans for a missile defense system, Putin arrived in the Iranian capital in a painstakingly scrutinized visit that was the first by a Kremlin leader since Josef Stalin mapped out World War II strategy with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in 1943.
Despite continuing threats from the West against Iran's nuclear ambitions, Putin told reporters that Tehran has the right to continue civilian nuclear enrichment.
"Russia is the only country that has assisted Iran in implementing its peaceful nuclear program," he said. "We believe all countries have the right to a peaceful nuclear energy program."
The Russian president warned the other Caspian Sea nations present not to allow their countries to be used for military assaults against Iran, a clear message to Washington, which has refused to rule out an attack to halt or slow the Iranian nuclear program it believes is ultimately aimed at building weapons.
"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.
Washington has strong military ties with the Caspian Sea nation of Azerbaijan and has been wooing Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan for flyover privileges and intelligence-sharing. The three nations, all formerly part of the Soviet Union, retain authoritarian leadership and have become political battlegrounds between the United States and Russia.
Bush administration officials disclaimed any disappointment in Putin's visit to Tehran or his comments, but they face a growing challenge in dealing with Putin's public statements.
Tom Casey, a State Department spokesman, said the United States did not object to Putin's appearance with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and that the administration still believes that Moscow agrees with U.S. and European aims on Iran's nuclear program.
"The Russian government position on this hasn't changed," Casey said. "I don't think the Russian government has been, in any way, shape or form, trying to encourage Iran's nuclear developments. In fact, they've been very concerned about it."
Moscow and Beijing appear more willing than Washington to tolerate Iran enriching uranium so long as it clears up lingering doubts about the peaceful intent of its past nuclear research. To long-standing U.S. dismay, Russia is also building a light-water nuclear power plant in the Iranian city of Bushehr and annually conducts $2 billion in trade with Iran.
Despite Putin's rhetorical support, analysts say Moscow harbors misgivings about Iran. The Kremlin deplores Ahmadinejad's belligerent talk, including his denial of the Holocaust and his defiant tone on Iran's nuclear program. It fears its association with Iran could damage its carefully cultivated relations with Israel and Europe, especially Germany.
While he condemned any possible U.S. attack, Putin did not vow to stand up for Iran in case of one.
And although the Russian president's presence at the summit might have lowered the Iranian government's sense of isolation, Putin left Tehran without granting Iran any of the concessions it had hoped for, including a timetable for the completion of the Russian-built nuclear plant in Bushehr or a deal on divvying up Caspian Sea energy reserves.
Borzou Daragahi writes for the Los Angeles Times.