Russia's Putin emerges from Iran plot 'like a hero'

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MOSCOW, Oct 15 (Reuters) Commentators were both amused and intrigued at the heroic light thrown on Russian President Vladimir Putin today when he defied what he said were security service warnings of a plot to kill him in Iran.

''I don't known if it's true or not true, but it makes him look like a hero, if he goes there. It makes him look like Jean-Claude Van Damme, or Steven Seagal - it's a drama,'' said veteran Russian broadcaster Sergey Dorenko told Reuters.

Putin, who was photographed earlier this summer showing off his muscular torso while on a hunting trip to Siberia, confirmed he would travel to Tehran after a summit in Germany, although Kremlin officials had said plans for his visit were in doubt.

The flurry of speculation followed a Russian news agency report published on Sunday, quoting a single unnamed security source, that plotters were planning to assassinate Putin in Tehran this week. The dramatic tale, since confirmed by Kremlin officials, has dominated the country's media.

Unlike his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, with his booming voice, theatrical manner and shock of white hair, the current Russian President needs all the help he can get to make him colourful, said Dorenko.

''This is a kind of manifestation of quiet courage, it's like 'I must go'. It's not like Yeltsin, who was already a character when he came out on stage,'' he said.

The plot reports come shortly before Duma elections this December and Putin's scheduled departure from office next March.

They come at a time of speculation on how the president, hugely popular at home, will maintain some grasp on power in Russia.

KREMLIN STRUGGLE ''The impact is he's a hero and not afraid of a possible attack on him - so he's going,'' Dorenko said.

Internal Kremlin intrigue, and no terrorist threat, were the real reason for the story, said Nikolai Zlobin, the director of the Russian and Eurasia Project at the World Security Institute in Washington.

''I think this is nothing to do with Iran and nothing to do with terrorism. I think this is an example of the struggle inside Putin's administration,'' he said from Moscow, where he has been following the news reports closely.

''Putin is the target of the story, not the target of a plot.

I think some groups in the Russian elite are trying to show Putin that he has to be more careful, more balanced,'' he said.

Zlobin says they want Putin to recognise the destabilising affect they believe could result from his departure as Russia's President and wanted to suggest how vulnerable the country could become, without him at the helm. Life without Putin.

These groups, Zlobin said, would not be regarded amongst the liberals inside the administration and want Putin to feel very responsible ahead of the elections.

Another analyst felt there were some real details backing up the allegations, even if they were being manipulated to suit a domestic political agenda.

''I think that there is something behind this information, like some real facts, but nobody knows exactly for sure,'' said political commentator Georgy Bovt.

''I think that information of this type would have never been reported by news agencies without the permission of the President's press office,'' he said.

''Why did they agree on making it public? I don't know, but there is some intrigue about how it was made public,'' he said.

Putin's visit to Iran is the first by a Kremlin leader since Josef Stalin went in 1943. Mystery around the ''assassination plot'' was reminiscent of the coded, enigmatic world of the old Soviet Union; 'orderly' days oft drawn on by Putin in his drive to centralise power and end the chaos of the Yeltsin era.

Tehran dismissed the report as baseless, calling it ''psychological warfare'' by Tehran's enemies -- an apparent reference to Western countries pushing Russia to back stronger sanctions against Iran over a nuclear programme they believe could spawn atomic weapons.

Russian television channels said previous plots to kill Putin had been foiled in Baku, Azerbaijan, in 2001 and in St Petersburg in 2000.

Russian secret services did receive intelligence about a plot against Putin, the country's three main news agencies reported today, quoting an unnamed security service official.

Reuters RSA RN2357

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