By Judy Dempsey
WIESBADEN, Germany: Dismissing reports of a possible assassination plot, President Vladimir Putin of Russia said he would travel to Tehran on Tuesday for a visit that would include talks on the disputed Iranian nuclear program.
At a news conference Monday with Chancellor Angela Merkel, Putin said he would go ahead with the trip, the first by a Russian president to Iran. "Of course I am going to Iran," he said. "If I always listened to all the various threats and the recommendations of the special services, I would never leave home."
On Sunday evening, the Interfax news agency in Moscow reported that Putin had received a warning from the Russian special services that his life would be in danger during his trip to Iran this week. Interfax cited a single security source whom it did not identify. This source talked of potential groups of suicide bombers. Other news agencies sent out similar reports Monday but without details or evidence.
Putin was speaking after two rounds of talks with Merkel as part of the regular German-Russian consultations known as the Petersburg Dialogue. The consultations, first started in 2001, bring together government ministers and business leaders, nongovernmental organizations and students to improve contacts.
Unlike previous meetings, which have been notable for the criticism of Russia's records on human rights and press freedoms, Merkel and Putin were publicly polite to each other, praising the closer ties between their countries.
During his visit to Iran, Putin is due to meet President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and attend the summit meeting Tuesday of Caspian Sea countries, which he stressed had been the original aim of his visit. Putin will become the first Kremlin leader to travel to Iran since 1943 when Josef Stalin attended the wartime summit with Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin Roosevelt.
With the United States planning to demand tougher sanctions on Iran next month in the UN Security Council if the country does not comply with international controls on its nuclear activities, Putin's visit is seen as an attempt by Moscow to carve out some kind of diplomatic role, according to European diplomats.
The five permanent members of the Security Council - Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States - joined by Germany, are giving Iran until November to give a satisfactory response to questions about its nuclear program or face the possibility of tougher sanctions.
All six countries agreed to two previous resolutions on sanctions. But Russia, China and Germany are reluctant to impose harsher measures.
Merkel called for further diplomacy, saying during the news conference with Putin that the international community wanted a peaceful solution to the issue. But in an interview with the German daily Die Welt, Merkel warned that "we cannot close our eyes to the dangers."
"I believe that we need to solve the problem through diplomacy, but at the same time we must be prepared to enact further sanctions if Iran does not come around," she told the newspaper.
Russia, which is building Iran's first nuclear plant, strongly warned Washington against imposing further sanctions and using force. Last week, Putin told Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who was visiting Moscow, that he saw no "objective data" to prove Western claims that Iran was seeking nuclear weapons.
At the same time Putin has urged Iran to comply with controls by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN nuclear watchdog. Moscow has also slowed down the completion of a nuclear plant in the southern port of Bushehr. Russia said earlier this year that the nuclear plant would not be ready by this autumn, citing Iranian delays in payment. Russia also has delayed the shipment of uranium fuel for the plant.
"Russia has shown its determination to complete the plant's construction, but it also has underlined the need to solve certain technical issues," the Russian presidential spokesman, Dimitri Peskov, said. The statement appeared to signal that the Kremlin was unlikely to offer any firm commitment regarding the beginning of operations at the plant.
Iranian officials have denied any payment arrears and accused the Kremlin of caving in to Western pressure.
Putin had also offered to enrich uranium for Iran on Russian soil and monitor any shipments later sent to Iran. Iran turned down the offer.
Iran is continuing its own enrichment program, insisting that it wants to produce its own fuel, and only for peaceful and civilian purposes.
But the lack of transparency has increased suspicions from several Security Council members that Iran's goal is the capability to make a nuclear bomb. Low-enriched uranium is used to fuel nuclear power plants, but highly enriched uranium can be used to build weapons.