JERUSALEM (AP) — When Vladimir Putin visits Israel next week, the world may want to pay attention: The Iranian nuclear program will top the agenda — and the steely Russian president, widely viewed as coddling the Iranians, may hold the key to avoiding a potential slide into another Middle East war.
With close ties to Iran and a vote on the U.N. Security Council, Russia could play a key role in the coming months in determining whether Israel decides to attack Iran's suspect nuclear program.
In Jerusalem, the commonly held view is that after years of dithering, the West has woken up to the threat from Iran — but the reluctance of Russia and China to support a crippling regime of sanctions and pressure is emboldening the Iranians, decreasing the chances they will back down and increasing the chances for an attack of last resort.
"The message they (the Russians) will receive is that Israel can't tolerate a nuclear Iran. Of course we prefer a diplomatic solution, but we will use all means to protect Israel's survival," said Yacov Livne, head of the Russia desk at the Israeli Foreign Ministry.
"We expect Russia, as a member of the Security Council, to demonstrate responsibility and help to prevent the Iranian nuclear race," he said. "I think that will be the most important subject, the central subject here next week."
Israel sees Iran as its most dangerous foe because it is convinced that Iran's nuclear program is meant to build bombs and not produce energy, as Iran claims. The fears are compounded by Iran's frequent calls for Israel's destruction, support for anti-Israel militants and arsenal of ballistic missiles.
Officials here have fueled speculation about Israeli attack plans by contending that Iran's movement of nuclear facilities into heavily fortified, underground bunkers will soon make the program immune to airstrikes.
Putin can expect pressure to join the West in its crusade to halt the program.
Putin's calculations are complex. Resurgent Russia, trying to reassert itself in the world after a couple of lean decades, is not likely to abandon a trade partner and sometime ally; but his rhetoric suggests he may also want to placate the Israelis, as he has warned of "truly catastrophic" consequences should there be a military strike.
The United States and key European nations have also made clear they oppose an Israeli attack that would risk retaliation that could draw in other nations and further rattle the world economy.
Iran is under three sets of Security Council sanctions, which Israel has welcomed but also warned are not enough.
Efforts aimed at tougher U.N. sanctions have been opposed in the Security Council by Russia and China, but others are proceeding with new measures.
On July 1, the 27 nations of the European Union will stop importing Iranian oil. Other major importers such as Japan, India, and South Korea have all agreed under U.S. pressure to cut back on Iranian oil purchases.
Russia, which has plenty of its own oil, is not a factor in the oil sanctions, and it has also not participated in a Western-led effort to blackball Iran from international banking networks, with top officials in Moscow repeatedly objecting to "unilateral" actions against Tehran.
Putin's visit comes after the inconclusive end of another round of talks between Iran and world powers. The U.S., Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany have held three rounds of talks with Iran in recent months, yielding no breakthroughs in persuading Iran to rein in uranium enrichment. A new set of low-level negotiations has been set for July.
Israel accuses Iran of using the talks as cover to continue its pursuit of the bomb. Israel has been pressing for a halt to enrichment, while placing all the uranium Iran has already treated under international supervision. Iran has rejected those demands.
Iran says its nuclear program is purely for civilian purposes like medical research and power generation — a claim met with skepticism in Israel and the West.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has said repeatedly that Israel can wait a weeks but not years for negotiations to succeed.
Russia's role in the Iran standoff has been complex. Russia has benefited handsomely from the Iranian nuclear program, having built a $1 billion nuclear reactor in Bushehr.
At the same time, Russia continues to participate in the international dialogue with Iran. And bowing to U.S. and Israeli demands, Moscow has scrapped a deal to sell Iran long-range missiles that would have provided a powerful deterrent against an air attack.
"I don't think Russia is interested in a nuclear Iran. I think Russia has an interest in a stable Middle East where radical Islam does not rule," said Livne, the Foreign Ministry official.
No comment was available on the issue from Russian officials Thursday.
Russia plays a sophisticated game with Iran, said Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born analyst who lives in Israel. He said it's possible that the spectacle of Putin in Israel was designed to send a message to Tehran that it had better curb its nuclear ambitions.
"One of the reasons Putin is coming to Israel is to put pressure on the Iranians, to say, 'If you don't compromise, I will align myself more with the country that you consider to be your enemy,'" Javedanfar said.
Another subject sure to come up during the 24-hour visit is Russian arms sales to Syria, Israel's enemy to the north, which is in the midst of a violent uprising against President Bashar Assad that has been going on for 15 months.
Israel is worried that weapons in Syria will make their way to anti-Israel Hezbollah militants in neighboring Lebanon. Israel claimed Russian missiles sold to Syria made their way to Hezbollah during its 2006 war with the Israeli military.
Despite sometimes differing approaches, Israel and Russia enjoy generally friendly ties, and have deep economic and cultural relations bolstered by the more than 1 million immigrants from the former Soviet Union who live here.