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Alleged Plot To Kill Putin In Iran Overshadows Landmark Trip

By Chloe Arnold and Claire Bigg

MOSCOW, October 15, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- An alleged plot by suicide bombers in Iran to assassinate Russian President Vladmir Putin has cast a shadow over his landmark trip to Tehran today to attend a summit of Caspian Sea heads of state.

Little is known about the alleged plot, which was reported by Russian news agencies on October 14. They cited anonymous Russian security sources as saying that suicide bombers in Iran were preparing to kill Putin during his trip -- the first by a Kremlin leader to Tehran since 1943. The agency reports had no other information about the would-be killers, such as for whom they worked or what, if any, ties they have to the Iranian government.

Putin, asked about the reports in Germany today after meeting with Chancellor Angela Merkel, waved off the question with a shrug. And he dismissed doubts that he would go ahead with the trip. "I am, of course, going to Iran,” the Russian leader said. “If I always listened to various threats or recommendations by the security service, I would never leave home."

Iranian Reaction

In Tehran, news of the plot met with an angry reception. Iranian officials accused Western media of fabricating the plot in order to sour ties between Tehran and Moscow. And the Foreign Ministry insisted that major security precautions were in place and that Putin's armored car had already been airlifted to Iran ahead of his visit.

But who in Iran would want to kill Putin, and why?

Hossein Aryan, a security expert with RFE/RL’s Radio Farda, doesn’t believe that “freelance” suicide bombers in Iran could get away with such a plot. "Iran's intelligence organizations are fairly effective -- I don't think something like that would occur in Iran,” Aryan said. “After all, who would want to do that? So I think we have to look at this information as a kind a rumor aimed at creating a disruption. Perhaps some countries, including the United States, are not quite willing to see President Putin going to Tehran and sitting next to President Ahmadinejad."

Others say the plot makes even less sense if the killers are supposed to be linked to the Iranian state. After all, Russia, as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, is a key supporter of Iran and its controversial nuclear program.

"I think that if an assassination attempt is being plotted in Iran, [it is because] the head of our country is not a liked man, let's put it that way, in many quarters, because Russia is strengthening its position on the world stage,” said Nina Mamedova, who heads the Iranian department at the Institute for Eastern Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences. “But I don't think this is an attempt by the Iranians, because the people Iran are counting on in the UN Security Council are Russia and China, so that the sanctions they are expecting will not be as serious as they might otherwise be."

Still, some see the alleged plot as serving a useful purpose for Putin, both domestically and abroad.

Russia faces parliamentary elections in December, and, more significantly, a presidential vote in March 2008 as Putin's second term in office comes to a close. Putin is enormously popular in Russia, and there has been much speculation that he will seek to prolong his political influence by assuming a third term or moving into a prime ministerial post. Alleged plots against him and other highly publicized security risks may help cement public sentiment that Putin -- widely seen as the sole caretaker of the nation -- should remain in power.

Outside Russia, Moscow's relations with Tehran have proved a useful negotiating tool with the West. Its continued cooperation on Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant has been a thorn in Washington's side, as has its continued refusal to endorse further sanctions against Iran for its uranium-enrichment activities. Putin reiterated his stand as recently as October 12, during a reportedly acrimonious meeting in Moscow with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

The reputed plot also comes just two days ahead of a Caspian Sea summit seen as a critical opportunity for host Iran to press its case for dividing up the sea’s oil riches with the four other littoral states -- Russia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan.

The summit is only the second of its kind. The first took place in 2002 in the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat. Putin's attendance would mark the first visit by a Kremlin leader to Tehran since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin attended a 1943 summit there with Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt.

Caspian Solution

Expectations had been high that the five states would resolve their long-standing dispute over ownership of the oil-rich Caspian. "The littoral states have been working toward this for several years,” said D. Shirin Akiner, a Caspian region expert at the London-based Chatham House think tank. “There's been a special working group tasked with coming up with a solution, and progress has been good. Expectations are high that all, or most, of the problems will be resolved at this summit. But whether or not they actually resolve the issues tomorrow, they're certainly working in the right direction."

The five countries have been quarrelling over how to divide the Caspian Sea since the 1991 Soviet collapse. Russia, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan have backed an arrangement under which each country receives a share proportional to the length of its coastline.

Iran, which has the shortest coastline, has advocated an alternative approach -- an equitable 20-percent division of the seabed, surface, and waters. Turkmenistan's position has been unclear, but the change of leadership after President Saparmurat Niyazov's death last year could prove decisive.

Putin is also tentatively due to meet with Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad on the sidelines of the summit. A sudden cancellation by the Russian leader would have sent a distinct signal that no important business would be carried out during the gathering.

But Putin will be in Tehran tonight, he says. Suicide bombers or not, his presence there will be closely watched by Western leaders pushing Moscow for a harder line on an Iranian nuclear program that they fear masks a drive for nuclear weapons.

(RFE/RL correspondent Claire Bigg reported from Prague)

Copyright (c) 2007. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

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