Russia defies Western pressure over Iran

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MOSCOW, Oct 10 (Reuters) Russia defied Western pressure to toughen its stance over Iran's nuclear programme today days before President Vladimir Putin has talks in Tehran and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visits Moscow.

Western powers suspect Iran wants to develop nuclear bombs and are pushing hard for a third round of international sanctions. Russia could use its veto powers in the United Nations Security Council to block such moves.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was quoted by Russian news agencies as saying it would be ''irresponsible'' to make any sudden moves on Iran until the UN's nuclear watchdog, the IAEA, had completed negotiations with Tehran.

After talks with French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Moscow, Putin said he had no evidence Iran was trying to build a nuclear bomb. Iran says its atomic programme is peaceful.

Putin said Moscow would cooperate on the issue within the UN, apparently sticking to a Russian stance that rules out further sanctions in the near future and any punitive action against Iran outside the UN framework.

''Until the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) reports on what is going on in Iran, until we receive these answers, it would be irresponsible to make any sharp movements,'' Lavrov was quoted by RIA as saying.

''When we hear calls to use force against Iran, which has fallen foul of IAEA rules, then we question what this could lead to,'' Lavrov said.

Iran agreed with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in August to explain the scope of its nuclear work. A senior IAEA official is in Tehran at present for talks.

Putin will be in Tehran early next week to attend a conference of states bordering the Caspian Sea. He is expected to meet Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Western lobbying of Russia over Iran could continue later this week when US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates have talks in Moscow on security and arms control issues.

BOMB-MAKING PLANS Iran says it wants nuclear technology exclusively to generate power. The United States, leading the drive for action against Iran, says it wants a diplomatic solution but has not ruled out a military strike.

Speaking at a joint Kremlin news briefing with Sarkozy, Putin said: ''We proceed from the position that Iran has no such plans (to acquire a nuclear weapon) but we share the concerns of our partners that all Iran's programmes should be as transparent as possible.

''We are working in cooperation with our partners in the United Nations Security Council and intend to keep working in cooperation with them in the future.'' Sarkozy, a vocal critic among the Western leaders pressing for further sanctions on Iran, said he and Putin had been able to narrow their differences on the issue, but he did not specify in what way.

''I believe there is a certain convergence of our opinions,'' he told reporters at the news conference with Putin.

''What Mr Putin has just said is important. A few days before his visit to Tehran, to say that he is cooperating, that he wants to continue cooperating, is important.'' Iran's president told students in Tehran that Iran would never surrender over its right to nuclear power.

''The government will not surrender... over the Iranian nation's nuclear rights ... ,'' Ahmadinejad said. ''The nuclear fuel cycle has been completed during the past two years.

''I can say the Iranian nation is ready to have dialogue with everyone over every different issue, but it will never back down from its undeniable rights over the nuclear issue.'' REUTERS SYU BST2251

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