(Guardian) - Russia's president, Vladimir Putin , gave Iran's leaders a public morale boost in their nuclear dispute with the west yesterday by issuing a veiled warning to the US not to resort to military strikes over the issue.
Mr Putin used a historic visit to Tehran - the first by a Kremlin leader since Stalin in 1943 - to amplify his opposition to an American attack against Iran. "We should not even think of making use of force in this region," he told a five-nation summit meeting of Caspian Sea nations.
In a coup for Tehran's leadership, he invited the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad , to Moscow for talks. Mr Putin called on the five countries - Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Russia and Iran - not to allow an outside power to use their territories to launch an attack on another member of the group.
"We are saying that no Caspian nation should offer its territory to third powers for use of force or military aggression against any Caspian state," Mr Putin said.
His comments - backed up by a post-summit communique - appeared to be aimed at Azerbaijan, a former Soviet republic which has a partnership deal with Nato . It has been touted as a potential launching pad for US strikes against Iran after American military commanders inspected its airfields.
Iran's government had billed in advance the Russian leader's visit as a coup in its efforts to ward off a third round of UN security council sanctions over its refusal to suspend its uranium enrichment programme , suspected by the US and its allies as designed to produce an atomic bomb. Russia's status as veto-wielding permanent member of the council means Iran needs its support to resist further punitive UN measures.
His arrival yesterday morning was greeted with obvious relief by Iranian officials, following speculation that his visit would be cancelled after Russian security forces claimed to have uncovered a plot to assassinate him while he was in Tehran. Mr Putin was met at Tehran's Mehrabad airport by Iran's foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki , a privilege not extended to the other visiting leaders.
The nuclear issue overshadowed the summit's official purpose: to discuss the resources in the energy-rich Caspian Sea.
Despite the meeting's failure to satisfy Iranian demands for a fairer allocation, Mr Ahmadinejad praised the communique as "very strong" after it gave explicit backing to Iran's nuclear programme . It declared that all signatory nations to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty - including Iran - can "carry out research and can use nuclear energy for peaceful means without discrimination". The wording supported Iran's claim that it is being singled out unfairly over its nuclear ambitions, which it insists are peaceful.
Mr Putin's public support may have been tempered in face-to-face meetings with Mr Ahmadinejad and Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei , which took place yesterday after the summit. Despite its hostility to military action, Russia shares US opposition to Iran emerging as an independent nuclear power.
Mr Putin's declaration last week that there are no "objective data" that Iran is developing a nuclear weapon has been balanced by his calls on Tehran to show more transparency over its activities.
Yesterday's public warmth disguised deep-seated Iranian suspicions of Russia, which is widely believed in Iran to have a history of extracting humiliating territorial concessions from the country.
Some Iranian officials believe that pattern is in danger of repeating itself over a stalled Russian contract to build a nuclear power station at Bushehr . Russia has put the ?500m project on hold over what it says are delays in payment.
Iran has angrily denied the claims and says Russia is trying to use the issue to force it to back down in its confrontation with the UN.