Defiant Ahmadinejad holds high-stakes talks with Russia

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Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was headed for high-stakes talks with Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev Thursday after vowing to resist outside interference in his country's nuclear ambitions.

Ahmadinejad was to meet Medvedev on the sidelines of a regional summit in the Azerbaijani capital Baku during one of the lowest points in relations between the two traditional allies.

Once a reliable backer of Tehran throughout the nuclear standoff, Moscow has scrapped a controversial missile deal with Iran and backed United Nations sanctions against the country, which Russia now admits is nearing the ability to develop a nuclear bomb.

Ahmadinejad has recently vented his fury at Medvedev -- accusing Russia of selling out "to our enemies" -- and on Thursday stressed, without mentioning Russia directly, that pressure tactics would fail.

"We were always ready for negotiations," Ahmadinejad told a press conference before the summit of Caspian Sea countries.

But he insisted that any discussions would come only on Iranian terms.

"They think that they will achieve something by putting pressure on Iran. But they will not," Ahmadinejad said in reference to a group of world powers that is scheduled to meet with Iran again on December 5.

"They hope that a blockade of Iran will change the Iranian people. But the Iranian people will not be broken by sanctions."

Moscow has approached the sensitive talks with caution. A source in the Russian delegation said Medvedev understood the importance of his meeting with Ahmadinejad and would use it to keep the negotiating lines open for as long as possible.

"We believe one needs to conduct negotiations, needs to talk, to try to convince," the Russian source said.

Analysts have billed the Baku encounter as a last chance for Tehran to step out of its growing international isolation and show good will toward an ally whose backing it simply cannot afford to lose.

Yet Tehran's tone going into the meeting has been firm.

It has insisted that it can do without the Russian weapons and has even claimed it has developed a system very similar to the S-300 missiles that Russia never sent.

The Kremlin has played down its recent frustrations with Iran and stressed that any form of dialogue -- even if it comes amid sanctions -- was preferable.

"We are convinced that under the sanctions it is necessary to look for new incentives which will ensure ... constant cooperation with Iran including on nuclear issues and dialogue with it," Medvedev's top foreign policy aide Sergei Prikhodko said.

"The sanctions do not cover the entire volume and complex of ties with Iran. A significant part of cooperation does not fall and will not fall under the sanctions," he added.

The Caspian Sea summit itself -- the third gathering of nations that also includes Azerbaijan and the Central Asian states of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan -- was unlikely to make much progress on its most important dispute: how to split up the sea and its vast energy reserves.

Iran insists on dividing the Caspian into five equal portions while the Azerbaijanis are angling for access that corresponds to each country's coastline.

© 2010 AFP

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