The three countries said on Friday they were united in a commitment to stop Iran developing nuclear weapons.


The talks with President Vladimir Putin produced a joint call for Syria to withdraw its forces from Lebanon and focused on areas on which they agreed, glossing over potential points of discord such as Chechnya and the state of democracy in Russia.

 

Putin, French President Jacques Chirac, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero exuded harmony at a news conference - even on the question of Ukraine where a West-leaning president came to power early this year against Putin's wishes.

 

"We are working very closely on the Iran question," Schroeder said, dismissing any suggestion of differences even though Russia has been supplying Tehran with nuclear technology, saying it is intended for civilian purposes.

 
Return of spent fuel

"We are trying to convince the Iranians they must not produce or possess nuclear arms. We are working closely together," he said.

 

"We are trying to convince the Iranians they must not produce or possess nuclear arms. We are working closely together"

Gerhard Schroeder,
German chancellor

Putin pointed out that Russia, while pressing ahead with the Bushehr nuclear station project in Iran, had signed an agreement with Tehran for the return of spent fuel.

 

But he said Iran would have to show its "complete rejection" of any attempt to acquire nuclear weapons. "We will attentively follow the level at which Iran cooperates on the monitoring of its nuclear technology," he said.

 

That may not be enough for the United States, which accuses Tehran of trying to develop a nuclear arsenal and was angered by an agreement last month under which Russia will provide Iran with nuclear fuel. Iran denies it is developing nuclear arms.


Syrian withdrawal
 

The four also issued a joint appeal for Syria to withdraw its forces from Lebanon to open the way for "free and transparent elections" there.

 

The meeting came at a crucial time for Putin, who is a year into his second and last presidential term and who, after a political setback in Ukraine late last year, referred to his concerns that Western forces were out to isolate Russia.

 

Schroeder and Chirac are Putin's closest friends in the European Union and it was clear from the start he would not be chided over his record on democracy at the Elysee Palace get-together.

 

There was no mention of Chechnya, where Putin has been pursuing hardline policies to break the separatist cause. Human rights bodies criticise Moscow for alleged violations by Russian forces in the Muslim province in the North Caucasus.


Cordial welcome

 

The warm reception he was given contrasted with that of some of new EU members from former communist republics in Eastern Europe. The Baltic states and Poland want a tougher line taken with Moscow over its record on democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

 

On Ukraine, Putin struck a moderate tone on the eve of his visit there on Saturday - his first since street protests over a rigged election in favour of a Moscow-backed candidate brought to power the pro-western Viktor Yushchenko.

 

Russian President Vladimir Putin
says Iran will be monitored

He underlined historical links between Russia and its smaller Slavic neighbour. But he said Moscow backed no political force in Ukraine - a signal to Yushchenko ahead of Saturday's meeting that Moscow would not try to undermine his leadership by stoking discontent among the huge Russian-speaking population.

 

Echoing words by Schroeder, Putin said it served no one to promote instability in Ukraine.


Transparency and trust
 

Earlier on Friday, Chirac put the accent on transparency and trust with France's old Cold War foe by whisking Putin off by helicopter to a top secret air base at Taverny outside Paris.

 

Putin is keen to see as many world leaders as possible at 9 May celebrations in Moscow to mark the Red Army's defeat of Nazi Germany 60 years ago.

 

Preparations for the event have become mired in diplomatic wrangling after Moscow was cold-shouldered by Lithuania and Estonia. A third Baltic state, Latvia, is attending but with misgivings.