Ria-Novosti / AP
Ahmadinejad showing the way for the leaders of the other Caspian Sea nations as he hosted a photo session during their meeting on Tuesday in Tehran.
By Nikolaus von Twickel
President Vladimir Putin arrived with a message of support Tuesday, when he became the first Kremlin leader to visit Iran since Stalin, pledging to stand by the country's nuclear program and co-signing a declaration with a thinly veiled warning against U.S. interference.
But while maintaining in an interview with Iranian television that Moscow would honor its commitment to build a nuclear power site near the southwestern port city of Bushehr, Putin refused to set a date for the start of operations at the facility.
In a speech at the meeting of the five Caspian littoral states -- Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan -- Putin said Russia was the only country that had helped Tehran develop its nuclear program.
"We believe that every country has the right to develop peaceful nuclear energy programs," he said, Interfax reported.
Washington, meanwhile, has led efforts in the United Nations Security Council to tighten international sanctions against the Islamic republic over its uranium enrichment activities, which the U.S. presidential administration says could be a cover for a weapons program, a claim Iran denies.
Russia, one of five countries that hold a veto on the Security Council, has repeatedly said there is no evidence that Tehran is trying to develop nuclear weapons.
In their final declaration, the littoral states acknowledged the rights of all signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty -- including Iran -- to develop peaceful nuclear energy programs.
The states also declared that they would not allow their territories to be used for an attack on any of the others, in an apparent response to speculation that the United States could resort to military force in its dispute with Iran.
Washington has refused to rule out military action if diplomacy fails to resolve the impasse.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who insists that Tehran will not stop work on its atomic program, praised the declaration as "very strong."
Putin reinforced the idea that the Caspian nations should not be used in any attack by a third country, a comment that appeared to be directed at Azerbaijan, which has held talks with U.S. military officials over the situation in Iran.
Russian media have speculated that the U.S. military could use Azeri facilities in a possible strike -- a suggestion Azeri officials have denied.
"We should not even think of making use of force in this region," Putin told the meeting.
While there was unity on the issue of Iran, the countries once again failed to reach a deal on how to divide the Caspian basin, which is believed to contain enormous oil and gas reserves.
The legal status of the sea has been in limbo since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, which has led to conflicting claims to seabed deposits.
Another concern for Moscow has been U.S.-backed efforts to build alternative pipelines to deliver Central Asian and Caspian oil and gas to the West, bypassing Russia.
Moscow strongly opposes such plans, and Putin argued in Tehran that they would threaten the environment.
"Projects that may inflict serious environmental damage to the region cannot be implemented without prior discussion by all five Caspian nations," he said.
Putin arrived in Tehran on Tuesday after shrugging off a news report about a suicide plot to kill him during the trip. While his spokespeople had suggested that he might change his plans, Iran steadfastly dismissed the assassination plot reports.
After the meeting between the five leaders, Putin and Ahmadinejad held two-way talks. Putin said the meeting would touch on the Iran's disputed nuclear program, but did not elaborate. Later, he was to have dinner with Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
In the week leading up to his Tehran visit, Putin held talks with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel on the subject of Iran's nuclear program. Putin's meeting with Ahmadinejad, therefore, was watched closely by countries hoping he would use Russia's leverage, based on trade and nuclear supply ties, to help address Western concerns.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Tom Casey said ahead of the meeting that the U.S. government expected Putin to "convey the concerns shared by all of us about the failure of Iran to comply with the international community's requirements concerning its nuclear program," The Associated Press reported.
While the Kremlin has shielded Tehran from a U.S. push for a third round of UN sanctions, Iran has voiced annoyance about Moscow's foot-dragging in building the $1 billion Bushehr facility.
Putin was making no promises in answers to questions from Iranian reporters as to when the project would be up and operating.
"I only gave promises to my mom when I was a small boy," he told Iranian reporters, before adding that work would ultimately be finished. "We are not going to renounce our obligations," he said.