Transparency

Putin said Moscow would co-operate on the issue within the UN, apparently sticking to a Russian stance that rules out further sanctions in the near future and any punitive action against Iran outside the UN framework.

Speaking at a joint Kremlin news conference with Sarkozy on Wednesday, Putin said: "We proceed from the position that Iran has no such plans [to acquire a nuclear weapon], but we share the concerns of our partners that all Iran's programmes should be as transparent as possible.

"We are working in co-operation with our partners in the United Nations Security Council and intend to keep working in co-operation with them in the future."

Sarkozy, a vocal critic of Iran who has been pressing for further sanctions against Tehran, said he and Putin had been able to narrow their differences on the issue, but he did not specify in what way.

He said: "I believe there is a certain convergence of our opinions. What Mr Putin has just said is important.

"A few days before his visit to Tehran, to say that he is co-operating, that he wants to continue co-operating, is important."

'Irresponsible'

In August, Iran agreed with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to explain the scope of its nuclear work. A senior IAEA official is currently in Tehran for talks.

Sergei Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister, was quoted on Wednesday by Russian news agencies as saying that it would be "irresponsible" to make any sudden moves against Iran until the IAEA had completed the talks.

Lavrov said: "Until the IAEA reports on what is going on in Iran, until we receive these answers, it would be irresponsible to make any sharp movements.

"When we hear calls to use force against Iran, which has fallen foul of IAEA rules, then we question what this could lead to."

Rice visit

Pressure on Russia over Iran could continue later this week when Rice, the US secretary of state, and Robert Gates, the defence secretary, hold talks in Moscow on security and arms control issues.

The US, which has led the drive for action against Iran, says it wants a diplomatic solution but it has not ruled out a military strike.

Putin will be in Tehran early next week to attend a conference of states bordering the Caspian Sea and is expected to meet Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran's president.

Ahmadinejad recently told students in Tehran that Iran would never surrender over its right to nuclear power.

He said: "The government will not surrender ... over the Iranian nation's nuclear rights... The nuclear fuel cycle has been completed during the past two years.
   
"I can say the Iranian nation is ready to have dialogue with everyone over every different issue, but it will never back down from its undeniable rights over the nuclear issue."