Guardian Unlimited (website)
After meeting with President Vladimir Putin, a European Jewish leader said Thursday 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 next week for talks with Iranian leaders, said Wednesday 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 was 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 said in an interview with 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 has 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 on Wednesday night. Earlier in the day, he discussed Iran with visiting French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and the issue will come up again Friday when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates hold meetings in Moscow.
The United States and its allies are concerned Iran’s nuclear program may be geared toward creating fissile material for nuclear warheads. Iran says its program is strictly for producing radioactive fuel for nuclear power plants.
The U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, says it has not detected signs of a weapons program in Iran, but is withholding judgment on what the Iranians’ goal may be.
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. He told Putin that the institution includes 43 Jewish communities representing 3 million Jews in Europe.
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 Thursday 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, the 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 Hanukkah celebrations last year, which “means that being a good Christian does not prohibit him from being a friend to Jews.” Yakunin is known as a major supporter of the Russian Orthodox Church.
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, which calls for tougher action across Europe against those who commit racially motivated crimes and educational programs to teach tolerance to children.
“Xenophobia does not thrive if the authorities do not want it to,” Kantor said later at a news conference. “I’m sure that the leadership of Russia will do everything to stamp out this tendency.”