ASTANA, Kazakhstan – Vice President Dick Cheney, visiting Kazakhstan Friday, said that Iran should follow the example the Central Asian set several years ago in renouncing nuclear weapons.
At a news conference, Cheney also shrugged off Russian criticism of a speech he delivered Thursday that accused President Vladimir Putin of backsliding on democracy and using energy resources as political leverage against European countries.
"We need to find a way diplomatically to avoid a kind of problem that would result from Iran-developed nuclear weapons," Cheney told reporters after unexpectedly lengthy talks with President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
He said the United States is working with others to try to find a "diplomatic solution to avoid a confrontation over this issue."
With Nazarbayev standing a few feet away, Cheney added, "I frankly think that the example provided by Kazakhstan some years ago when they achieved independence, of giving up the inventory of nuclear weapons that were deployed in Kazakhstan, was an outstanding example that the Iranians might want to consider."
Cheney said he hadn't yet had the chance to "study the reaction out of Moscow" from Thursday's speech.
"The speech was very carefully crafted but made it clear the extent to which they seek to resist the development of strong democracies" in Eastern Europe, he said.
Cheney said that even with his remarks, he expects a meeting of the world's industrialized nations to occur as scheduled in Russia this summer, and "we'll all benefit from a free, open and honest exchange of views at that conference."
Nazarbayev, whose country shares borders with both Russia and China, betrayed no concern about the sharp rhetoric. "Every country has the right to voice their opinion about what is happening in another country and if they'll just do that in a friendly fashion we'll all benefit from it," he said.
Cheney arrived for talks seeking to maximize access to the vast oil and gas reserves in the central Asian nation with a troubled human-rights record.
He became the fourth top administration official to visit the former Soviet republic in recent months, underscoring the importance placed on a country that is strategically located and an ally in the war on terror, as well as rich in energy resources.
The two men met privately more than an hour, far longer than the few minutes that had been expected to precede a larger meeting of delegations.
There was no word on what the two men discussed in their private talks.
They sat down in a year-old presidential palace, part of a new capital that has been rising for nearly a decade. Signs of economic development were seemingly everywhere — more than two dozen towering construction cranes were easily visible in the distance from the steps outside the palace.
Cheney's schedule included a dinner with his host, with horsemeat cold cuts, a local delicacy, on the menu.
Administration policy favors development of multiple means of delivering Kazakhstan's energy supplies to markets in the West and elsewhere.
Among them, Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher told Congress recently, the United States is "working on securing the flow of oil" from North Caspian oil fields by tanker to a pipeline terminus in Azerbaijan. That route would bypass Russia and Iran. There has also been periodic talk of building a pipeline under the Caspian Sea.
Energy aside, one senior administration official said the vice president would prod Nazarbayev to make further democratic reforms in the country he has ruled since the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991.
"The government's human-rights record remains poor," according to a recent State Department report.
It was unclear how Cheney would attempt to balance the two concerns — American energy needs in a time of high prices alongside a desire for political reforms. His talks came one day after a speech to East European leaders in Lithuania that sharply criticized Russia for retreating on democracy.
One senior administration official traveling with Cheney said the remarks, which drew quick criticism from Moscow, had been "very well vetted" in advance within the administration.
Officials disclosed belatedly that while in Lithuania to attend a meeting of eastern European leaders, Cheney had met Thursday afternoon with Inna Kulei, the wife of the jailed Belarusian opposition leader, Alexander Milinkevich.
The vice president's stop in Kazakhstan followed visits in recent months by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns and Samuel Bodman, secretary of energy.
According to the Web site of the U.S.-Kazakhstan Business Association, the Asian country has potential oil reserves of as much 110 billion barrels.
American energy companies are heavily invested in that nation's oil industry, and Halliburton, the company Cheney ran before becoming vice president, has an oil-field services presence there.
"Kazakhstan, an economic success story, is rapidly becoming one of the top energy producing nations in the world," Boucher told a House committee on April 26.
Along with its economic reforms, Boucher said, the nation "has an opportunity to achieve stability by upholding standards of democracy and human rights."