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Despite Friendly Words, Olmert Visit to Russia Highlights Iran Differences

October 24, 2006
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Russia and Israel may be on better footing than they were in decades past, but differences between them over Iran’s nuclear program still surfaced during Ehud Olmert’s visit to Moscow. Israel has made it clear that it will not tolerate a situation in which Iran gains nuclear weapons, and the Israeli prime minister used talks with President Vladimir Putin last week to urge Moscow to exert its influence to help resolve the international crisis surrounding Tehran’s nuclear program.

“I leave this meeting with the sense that President Putin understands better than before the danger that is lurking from Iran’s direction, should it succeed in realizing its objectives of arming itself with nuclear weapons,” Olmert told journalists Oct. 18 after his talks with Putin and Russian Defense Minister Sergey Ivanov.

Putin did not address Israeli concerns directly, focusing instead on Russia’s role in the Middle East peace process. Russia is a member of the diplomatic grouping known as the Quartet — which also includes the United States, United Nations and European Union — trying to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Putin’s comments dealt mainly with Israel’s standoff with Hezbollah, and in fact gave little hope that Moscow would do more to persuade Iran to give up its suspected drive to produce nuclear arms.

“The only way to get out of the vicious circle of violence is to stop making mutual accusations, free hostages and resume peaceful dialogue,” Putin said. “Russia, as a member of the Middle East Quartet, intends to assist in a rapid stabilization of the situation and a resumption of the negotiating process.”

Olmert’s visit to Russia was his first foreign trip since Israel’s war against Hezbollah this summer, and came after Israel complained to Russia that weapons Russia supplied to Syria ended up in Hezbollah hands — just as Israel had warned when the deals were struck.

Olmert’s visit also came a week before the U.N. Security Council again takes up the Iranian nuclear issue. A draft resolution containing possible sanctions on Tehran is circulating among Security Council members, which include the United States and Russia, this week.

Russia has been instrumental in constructing Iran’s first civilian nuclear power station at Bushehr and long has resisted a push for U.N. sanctions against the Islamic republic, arguing that sanctions could provoke a regional crisis.

Moscow also supplies Iran with sophisticated conventional weapons. In addition, Russia has sizeable economic interests in Iran in other spheres aside from military, so any international sanctions could hurt Russian companies working there.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s comments on Iran probably disappointed the Israeli delegation. Lavrov appeared to say that Iran’s nuclear program is not a threat to peace and security in the region.

“It is necessary to act on Iran, but that action should be in direct proportion to what is really happening,” the RIA-Novosti Russian news agency quoted Lavrov as saying. “And what is really happening is what the” International Atomic Energy Agency “reports to us. And the IAEA is not reporting to us about the presence there of a threat to peace and security.”

Still, Russian leaders tried to convince the Israelis of their friendship. Olmert’s visit coincided with the 15th anniversary of Israel’s re-establishment of diplomatic ties with Russia after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Putin said Israel-Russia ties had been “completely transformed” in recent years and now were based on a great degree of trust.

Olmert, for his part, recalled Putin’s promise during his visit to Israel last year that “Russia’s relations in the Middle East will no longer be one-sided.”

Since the collapse of communism, Russia has failed to match the huge influence the Soviet Union once wielded in the Middle East, when it pursued a strongly pro-Arab position to counteract U.S. support for Israel.

Yet Russia today increasingly is acting to counterbalance what it may see as the United States’ pro-Israel tilt. Russia often seems to ignore or dismiss Israeli security concerns, but Olmert tried to play down the differences.

Israel understands that Russia “has an independent policy in the region,” he told reporters in Moscow. “Of course we are not always satisfied with this policy. We have our differences. I have said this openly to President Putin.”

During an Oct. 19 meeting with members of the Moscow Jewish community, Olmert said he has a positive feeling about Russian-Israeli relations.

“At the meeting with the Russian president, I felt his friendly attitude toward Israel, and I’m convinced that our relations and his commitment to Israel’s security are absolutely firm,” Olmert said. “Our cooperation is developing in different fields and it influences all spheres of our life — political, economical, scientific, technological, cultural and sports.”

(JTA correspondent Naomi Zubkova in Moscow contributed to this report.)

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