MOSCOW Russian President Vladimir Putin will show his preference for dialogue with Iran when he visits Tehran on Tuesday, amid calls from the West for stronger pressure on Iran to curb suspected plans for a nuclear bomb.
Putin, the first Kremlin chief to visit Iran since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin went in 1943, will formally be in Tehran for a summit of Caspian Sea states.
But a meeting with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad could give the Kremlin leader a chance to seek a peaceful compromise over Tehran's nuclear programme and to demonstrate his independence from Washington on Middle East issues.
"Putin is going to Iran to show the importance of continuing diplomacy," Kremlin deputy spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
Putin will tell Ahmadinejad that Russia accepts Iran's right to use nuclear energy but wants it to open up its nuclear programme to international inspectors to prove it is peaceful, Peskov added.
The West suspects Iran wants to develop atomic weapons under the cover of a civil nuclear programme. Iran says its programme is intended to generate power so it can export more oil and gas.
Russia, a veto-wielding member of the U.N. Security Council, has backed two sets of mild sanctions against Iran to encourage it to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
But Moscow, alarmed by rumors that the United States could launch a military strike on Iran, says it will not back further sanctions unless the IAEA says Iran is not cooperating or proves it is working on weapons.
"We have no real data to claim that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons, which makes us believe the country has no such plans. But we agree that Iran's programmes must be transparent," Putin said after meeting French President Nicolas Sarkozy this week.
Critics say Moscow has other reasons for wanting to soft-pedal the Iran issue. These may include a large contract to build a nuclear power plant at Bushehr in Iran, as well as lucrative military deals.
Another is that a standoff with the West over Iran would fit in with Moscow's newly assertive foreign policy aimed at building Russia's profile, particularly among developing nations, in the post-Cold War world.
The European Union is expected to step up pressure on Iran next week, warning Tehran it will face tougher sanctions unless it halts uranium enrichment, which is viewed as its most suspicious activity by the West.
Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned the West after talks with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Friday against sanctioning Iran bypassing the United Nations.
But he also pledged that Putin would in Tehran "continue the current line of work with the Iranian leadership, which reflects the collective position of the Six (states in talks with Iran) and the U.N. Security Council".
The six nations negotiating with Iran on its nuclear programme are the United States, Russia, China, France, Germany and Britain. Putin's visit to Tehran has been repeatedly postponed since 2005.
Russia argues that excessive pressure against Tehran could be counter-productive, as well as destabilizing the mainly Muslim region next to its southern borders. But economic reasons are also important for Moscow.
Analysts say the Bushehr plant, whose completion Russia has postponed quoting technical problems, could become a major bargaining chip.
"I think Putin may propose to Iranians giving up uranium enrichment in exchange for Russian fuel for Bushehr," Rajab Safarov, head of the Centre of Iranian Studies, said.
Ahead of Tehran, Putin will visit Germany on Sunday and Monday for talks with Chancellor Angela Merkel and a traditional business conference known as the "St Petersburg dialogue".