Israel's Olmert says Russia should help resolve Iran nuclear dispute

Thursday, October 19, 2006

MOSCOW -- Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert appealed to Russia on Wednesday to help block Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, but Russian President Vladimir Putin offered the visiting Israeli leader no public reassurances.

Relations between Russia and Israel have warmed dramatically in recent years, but the countries are in deep disagreement over the Iranian nuclear issue. Israel, like the West, doesn't believe Tehran's claims that its nuclear program is for energy, and wants its capabilities nipped.

But Russia says it has no proof Iran seeks a nuclear weapon and continues to build Iran's first, $800 million nuclear reactor. Russia, which wields veto power as a permanent Security Council member, has been a major impediment to imposing U.N. sanctions on Iran for refusing to scale back its nuclear ambitions.

But Olmert said those ambitions need to be thwarted.

"We don't have the privilege to ignore the true intentions of Iran, whose leadership publicly calls for the destruction of the state of Israel," Olmert said at a joint news conference with Putin after their meeting. "The entire international community must join ranks to block Iran's intention of arming itself with nuclear weapons."

"I leave this meeting with the sense that President Putin understands the danger that is lurking from Iran's direction, should it succeed in realizing its objectives of arming itself with nuclear weapons," he added.

Putin remained stonily silent, appearing to brush off Olmert's request by saying nothing about Iran at the news conference.

Fears about Russia's role in the Iranian standoff grew last month when Moscow, caving in to Iranian pressure, agreed to ship fuel to the atomic power plant it is building in Iran. The fear is that the fuel will be diverted and used to produce bombs.

Despite the tensions, relations between Russia and Israel have improved dramatically since the days of the Cold War, when Moscow helped to arm Arab nations fighting Israel and barred Jews from leaving the Soviet Union.

As the Soviet Union was collapsing in the early 1990s, both nations restored ties, and Moscow loosened the emigration restrictions, prompting more than 1 million Russian-speakers to immigrate to Israel.

Now, Russia is a member of the Quartet of international Middle East peace negotiations, along with the United States, the United Nations and the European Union, which proposed the "road map" peace plan that foundered shortly after it was introduced in June 2003.

Putin, who took office in 2000, called for a resumption of talks.

"The only way to get out of the vicious circle of violence is to stop making mutual accusations, free hostages and resume peaceful dialogue. 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," he said.

Olmert said that Israel was committed to the resumption of peace talks and that he wants to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a moderate who was elected last year separately from government members of Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel. Israel is boycotting the Islamic militant group.

However, Olmert reiterated that the conditions laid down by the Quartet must be respected, in particular the recognition of Israel and of all existing peace agreements between Israel and the Palestinians.

Abbas doesn't want to meet with Olmert without assurances he would have something to show for it -- such as an Israeli promise to release some of the thousands of Palestinian prisoners Israel holds. But Israel says it won't free prisoners until Hamas-linked militants free an Israeli soldier they captured nearly four months ago.

Olmert alluded to Russia's supply of military technology to other Israeli enemies. Israel claims Lebanon-based Hezbollah guerrillas used Russian missiles in a summer war with Israel. Israel does not accuse Russia of directly supplying Hezbollah, but maintains the arms were sold to Syria and Iran, which sent them on to their Hezbollah proxies.

Russia denies its missiles reached Hezbollah, but Israeli media reported that Russia has issued directives to tighten arms export controls. The Russians have reported no tightening of controls and Olmert said weapons transfers were an issue in his meeting with Putin.

"We discussed the importance of implementing the arms embargo on countries that transfer weapons to Hezbollah," Olmert said.

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