By Jalil Hamid
KUALA LUMPUR, March 2 (Reuters) Malaysia today called for calm in the row over Iran's nuclear programme as it welcomed visiting President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with a 21-gun salute.
Ahmadinejad is visiting Malaysia, an influential Muslim country and ally, as part of a campaign to assure the world community that Iran's nuclear ambitions are peaceful.
The president, dressed in a grey suit, inspected a guard of honour outside parliament house in Kuala Lumpur but did not speak to the crowd or reporters, leaving Malaysia's foreign minister to address Western fears that Iran wants to build nuclear arms.
''We hope ultimately through dialogue and negotiations, a solution will be found peacefully, because we do not think we can afford a new area, a new theatre of conflict using military means,'' Malaysia's Syed Hamid Albar told reporters.
''I think we should take the word of what they have been assuring,'' he said, referring to Iran's promise to use nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. ''We put safety measures (in place) to ensure it is complied with.'' Ahmadinejad, who has struck a defiant tone in rejecting European and U S suspicions, is due to speak later today at a business luncheon before meeting Malaysia's prime minister for talks and giving a joint news conference with him.
The trip is billed purely a bilateral visit but Malaysia is an influential friend in the nuclear row, which risks escalating next week when the United Nations' nuclear watchdog is to issue a report on Iran's nuclear activities.
The Southeast Asian nation currently chairs both the world's largest grouping of Muslim nations, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, and the Non-Aligned Movement.
To defuse the nuclear issue, Russia has offered to carry out Iran's uranium enrichment on Russian soil.
The thinking behind Moscow's proposal is that Russia would enrich Iranian uranium to the level Iran says it needs to fuel power stations, but not to the higher grade needed for weapons.
But Iran and Russia yesterday failed to reach a compromise after a third round of talks on Moscow's proposal.
Iran's top nuclear negotiator stuck to the line that even if a deal was struck with Russia, Tehran would not bow to the key demand from its critics -- to drop all efforts to enrich uranium at home.
Sergei Kislyak, a Russian deputy foreign minister, was quoted by Interfax news agency as saying that ''not a few questions remain unresolved''.
REUTERS KD DS0940