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Israel urges Putin to back sanctions against Iran

MOSCOW — Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert pressed Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday to support new sanctions against Iran over its nuclear activities and urged Russia not to sell arms to Iran or Syria.

Olmert's brief, abruptly announced visit came days after Putin traveled to Iran and met with its president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has publicly called for Israel's demise. During the trip, Putin vowed to support Iran's pursuit of nuclear energy and warned "outside forces" — an apparent reference to the United States. — against attacking Tehran.

In a three-hour meeting with Putin, Olmert "expressed his opinion that effective sanctions by all the international community would have the potential to stop Iran pursuing the nuclear path," said Miri Eisin, the Israeli prime minister's spokeswoman.

Russia has resisted further U.N. sanctions against Iran over its refusal to halt uranium enrichment and other activities that Israel and the United States say are aimed at developing nuclear weapons. Iran insists its nuclear program is for energy production alone.

Eisin said Olmert's visit was scheduled several days ago, but it was announced only after Putin returned from Iran.

As he and Olmert sat down for talks, Putin acknowledged the Israeli leader's dismay over Iran's nuclear program and promised to discuss his meetings in Tehran.

"We know how concerned you are about the situation surrounding the Iranian (nuclear program)," said Putin, the first Kremlin leader to visit Iran since 1943. "I am ready to share the results of my visit."

Olmert expressed eagerness "to hear from you about the results of your trip to Iran and talk about other concerns."

The Kremlin later released a brief statement saying that Putin, at Olmert's request, briefed the Israeli leader on "the main results of his recent visit to Tehran."

Putin sought to assuage both Iran and the West during his trip, a delicate balancing act reflecting his reach for global influence and desire to preserve warm ties with a Middle Eastern ally without angering Washington.

By rejecting Iranian pressure to set a firm startup date for a nuclear power plant Russia is building in Iran, Putin signaled that he was using Moscow's levers of influence to nudge Tehran toward cooperation with the international community.

But Putin also warned against attacking Iran, a boost to a country that has felt increasingly isolated and fearful of a U.S. attack.

He also has asserted that pressuring Iran too hard is counterproductive and stressed that Russia sees no proof Tehran is seeking nuclear weapons.

That stance drew anger in Israel.

"Even if Putin says he is not convinced that Iran is developing a nuclear capability for military purposes, everyone knows what its real intentions are," said Israeli President Shimon Peres. He said intelligence services have "incontrovertible proof that shows that Iran is working to develop nuclear weapons."

The substance of Putin's meetings with Ahmadinejad and Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was murky. Putin left the world wondering what kind of message he conveyed in private and how the Iranians responded.

President Bush said Wednesday he wanted a report directly from Putin about his visit to Iran — and to know whether Putin "continues to harbor the same concerns" as Washington about Iran's nuclear program. Bush suggested that a nuclear-armed Iran could trigger World War III.

Russia's mantra is that the standoff over Iran's nuclear program can only be solved through diplomacy. By hosting Olmert days after meeting with Iranian leaders, Putin may have been casting himself as an irreplaceable bridge between Iran and its fiercest critics.

"He spoke to Ahmadinejad. Now he's speaking to Olmert, he will be in a position to act as a go-between," said Meir Javedanfar, a Tehran-born Middle East analyst.

Russia has used its clout as a veto-wielding U.N. Security Council member to water down two sets of sanctions against Iran over its refusal to halt uranium enrichment, which can lead to development of weapons.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni called Wednesday for a new set of sanctions without the type of compromises that have been needed to secure Russian and Chinese support in the past.

Although the Iran nuclear standoff was "the foremost issue," Olmert also conveyed "Israel's concern over the Iranian and Syrian desire to acquire weapons from Russia of types that could change the balance in the area," Eisin said.

Eisin did not give details about Israel's concerns.

The Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot reported that Russia plans to provide Syria with surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft missiles it has never before sold to another country.

Russia disputes Israeli claims that Russian arms sold to Syria have been used by Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon. Moscow insists its weapons deals with Syria and Iran have complied with international law and have not disrupted the balance of power in the region.