Jewish Leader: Putin Shares Iran Worries

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moscow | After meeting with President Vladimir Putin last week, a European Jewish leader said he is convinced Russia shares the West’s concerns about a nuclear-armed Iran and will do everything possible to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Putin, who travels to Tehran this week for talks with Iranian leaders, said on Oct. 10 that there was no “objective data” showing Iran was trying to develop nuclear arms.

But Vyacheslav Kantor, a Russian-born billionaire who heads the European Jewish Congress and is friendly with the Kremlin, said Putin is prepared to use all “economic, political and psychological” means to prevent Iran from joining the nuclear club.

“We feel the intentions are very strong and positive,” Kantor told the Associated Press.

He said Putin and other official explained Russia’s levers of influence over Iran with sophistication. “I think they could be very effective,” Kantor said.

In its economic arsenal, Russia has a $1 billion contract to build Iran’s first nuclear power plant but has been dragging its feet on completing the project. Russia also dangled the possibility of building additional plants and has been a major supplier of weapons systems and aircraft.

On the diplomatic stage, Russia has been Iran’s strongest defender against efforts by the United States, Britain and France to impose tougher sanctions over Tehran’s refusal to suspend uranium enrichment — a possible pathway to nuclear arms.

Putin welcomed Kantor and other members of the Jewish organization to the Kremlin that night. Earlier in the day, he discussed Iran with visiting French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Kantor, 54, a businessman whose net worth Forbes magazine has put at $1.4 billion, was elected head of the European Jewish Congress in June.

Kantor’s candidacy was questioned by some Israeli officials, who expressed concern that his close ties to the Kremlin could undermine Israel’s efforts to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported.

Kantor, who counters that his high standing in the Kremlin could prove useful on the Iranian issue, boasted on Oct. 11 that when he sends an official letter to the Kremlin, he usually gets an immediate response.

Although he is not a personal friend of Putin, Kantor does have a long friendship with Vladimir Yakunin, head of Russia’s railway monopoly who is part of Putin’s inner circle and has been touted as a dark horse contender to succeed the president when his second term ends next year.

Kantor said Yakunin and his family were his guests for Chanukah celebrations last year.

Kantor said the European Jewish leaders also talked to Putin about growing xenophobia in Russia, where he said the number of neo-Nazis now exceeds 500,000.

He said the president expressed his support for a program being put forward by the European Jewish Congress that calls for tougher action across Europe against those who commit racially motivated crimes and educational programs to teach tolerance to children.