Putin Says Russia Intent on Preventing Nuclear-Armed Iran

After meeting with President Vladimir Putin, a European Jewish leader said Thursday that he is convinced Russia shares the West's concerns about a nuclear-armed Iran and will do everything possible to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

Putin, who travels to Tehran next week for talks with Iranian leaders, said Wednesday that, with no "objective data" showing Iran is working on nuclear arms, Russia will "proceed on the assumption that it has no such plans."

But Vyacheslav Kantor, a Kremlin-friendly Russian-born billionaire who heads the European Jewish Congress, said Putin was prepared to use all "economic, political and psychological" means to prevent Iran from joining the nuclear club.

Based on the sophistication with which Putin and other officials explained Russia's levers of influence over Iran, Kantor said, "I think they could be very effective."

"We feel the intentions are very strong and positive," he said in an interview with The Associated Press.

In its economic arsenal, Russia has a US$1 billion contract to build Iran's first nuclear power plant but has been dragging its feet on completing the project. Russia also has dangled the possibility of building additional plants and has been a major supplier of weapons systems and aircraft.

On the diplomatic stage, Russia has been Iran's strongest defender against efforts by the United States, Britain and France to impose tougher sanctions.

Putin welcomed Kantor and other members of the Jewish organization to the Kremlin on Wednesday night. Earlier in the day he had discussed Iran with visiting French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and the issue will come up again Friday when U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates hold meetings in Moscow.

The United States and its allies say Iran's nuclear program is geared toward creating fissile material for nuclear warheads. Iran denies that, insisting its program is strictly for producing radioactive fuel for nuclear power plants.

Kantor, 54, a businessmen whose net worth Forbes magazine has put at US$1.4 billion (euro1 billion), was elected head of the European Jewish Congress in June. His candidacy was questioned by some Israeli officials, who expressed concern that his close ties to the Kremlin could undermine Israel's efforts to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported.

Kantor, who has countered by saying his high standing in the Kremlin could prove useful on the Iranian issue, boasted Thursday that when he sends an official letter to the Kremlin, he usually gets an immediate response.

Although he is not a personal friend of Putin, he does have a long friendship with Vladimir Yakunin, the head of Russia's railway monopoly, who is part of Putin's inner circle and has been touted as a dark-horse contender to succeed Putin when his second term ends next spring.

Kantor said Yakunin and his family were his guests for Hanukkah celebrations last year, which "means that being a good Christian does not prohibit him from being a friend to Jews." Yakunin is known as a major supporter of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Kantor said the European Jewish leaders also talked to Putin about growing xenophobia in Russia, where he said the number of neo-Nazis now exceeds 500,000.

He said the president expressed his support for a program being put forward by the European Jewish Congress, which calls for tougher action against those who commit racially motivated crimes and educational programs to teach tolerance to children.

"Xenophobia does not thrive if the authorities do not want it to," Kantor said at a later news conference. "I'm sure that the leadership of Russia will do everything to stamp out this tendency."

Human rights groups say the Russian government is not doing enough to fight xenophobia.