Negotiators are “very close” to resolving the long-standing stand-off over Iran’s nuclear program, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday.
Speaking at a live, three-hour news conference that has become a Putin holiday tradition, the Russian leader praised the Iranian leadership for “demonstrating great flexibility” in the talks, according to the state news service Sputnik News.
“I do not understand why the final deal has not been inked yet. I hope it will happen in the near future,” he added, according to the Sputnik report.
The Russian leader may soon be visiting the Iranian capital Tehran, he said.
“My trip to Tehran is possible. We are currently arranging it through diplomatic channels.”
He hinted that such a visit might be intended to defy Western efforts to isolate Iran, saying, “If we find that we need a separate meeting [with the Iranian president], then we have no limits. We have no limits regarding any sort of external pressure.”
Nuclear talks between Iran and six world powers, including Russia, have been extended until July 2015, with the sides reportedly failing to agree on levels of uranium enrichment, the timing for dismantling international sanctions and other questions related to Tehran’s nuclear program.
Much of the press conference dealt with Russia’s own tensions with the West, and the havoc that declining oil prices and Western sanctions over the Ukrainian crisis have wreaked on the Russian economy.
Putin demonstrated unwavering confidence in his domestic policies despite a catastrophic collapse in the ruble. His fierce defiance toward the United States flared throughout as he insisted the West was trying to destroy Russia to grab Siberia’s great natural resources.
This year Putin held his televised extravaganza from a particularly strong vantage point: An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll released Thursday showed his approval rating among Russians stood at 81 percent — a level far above the ratings for other world leaders.
Putin accompanied his message with trademark images of Russian pride, with video showing him surrounded by Sochi Olympic athletes, petting a baby tiger and greeting Russian cosmonauts. And his most stirring quotes evoked a famed Russian symbol — the bear.
In his speech, the man who has led Russia for 15 years sought to soothe market fears that the government could use administrative controls, such as fixing the ruble’s rate or obliging exporters to sell hard currency, to help stabilize the battered currency.
Putin said the nation’s hard currency reserves are sufficient to keep the economy stable, adding the Central Bank should not aimlessly “burn” its $419 billion in reserves.
“Our economy will overcome the current situation. How much time will be needed for that? Under the most unfavorable circumstances, I think it will take about two years,” he said.
Putin also acknowledged that Western economic sanctions over Moscow’s actions in Ukraine were just one factor behind Russia’s economic crisis, estimating they accounted for roughly 25-30% of the ruble’s troubles. He said a key reason for the currency’s fall was Russia’s failure to ease its overwhelming dependence on oil and gas exports.
After Putin finished his performance, the Russian currency traded at 60 rubles to the dollar late Thursday, the same level as Wednesday. Still, the currency has lost about half its value since January.
Russia’s benchmark MICEX index rallied 4.3% by late afternoon Thursday, but consumers voted with their feet, buying cars, electronics and home appliances in a desperate attempt to protect their savings before prices go up.
Audi was the latest major company to suspend deliveries in Russia amid the ruble’s turmoil. Apple halted online sales earlier this week.
Putin struck a defiant note against the United States and the 28-nation European Union, saying the sanctions they slapped on Russia after it seized the Black Sea region of Crimea in March were part of a historical campaign to weaken Russia. He accused the West of trying to infringe on Russia’s sovereignty, saying the Ukrainian crisis was just a pretext for Western action.
To get his point across, he brought in the metaphorical Russian bear.
“Sometimes I think, maybe it would be better for our bear to sit quiet, rather than chasing around the forest after piglets. To sit eating berries and honey instead. Maybe they will leave it in peace,” said Putin. “They will not. Because they will always try to put him on a chain, and as soon as they succeed in doing so they tear out his fangs and his claws.”
By fangs and claws, Putin said he meant Russia’s nuclear weapons, which are protecting its valuable natural resources.
“Once they’ve taken out his claws and his fangs, then the bear is no longer necessary. He’ll become a stuffed animal,” he continued. “The issue is not Crimea. The issue is that we are protecting our sovereignty and our right to exist.”
Putin urged a political solution for the crisis in Ukraine, where pro-Russian insurgents have been battling Ukrainian government troops since April, leaving more than 4,700 people dead.