Netanyahu leaves for Moscow on Iran nuclear campaign

BEN GURION AIRPORT - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took off on Thursday for Russia in a last-minute bid to sway an emerging deal with Iran over its contested nuclear programme.

An AFP correspondent said the Israeli premier did not deliver any remarks before his plane taxied ahead of taking off shortly after 0700 GMT.

Netanyahu is to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin on Wednesday evening to voice his concerns about the deal being hammered out at talks in Geneva.

On Thursday, he will address members of the Russian Jewish community.

Russia is a member of the P5+1 group - alongside the United States, China, France, Britain and Germany - which has been struggling to reach a deal to freeze or curb Iran's nuclear activities in exchange for some relief from international sanctions.

Israel is staunchly opposed to the mooted interim agreement, insisting it will give Iran vital sanctions relief while failing to halt Tehran's alleged march towards a "breakout" nuclear weapons capability.

The P5+1 will meet with Iran on Wednesday in Geneva for talks on the programme, which Israel and the West suspect is aimed at developing a weapons capability but Tehran insists is entirely peaceful.

The last round of talks with Iran that ended on November 10 came tantalisingly close to a framework agreement that supporters say would bolster Iran's new president, a reputed moderate, and buy time for negotiating a comprehensive deal.

Moscow has expressed hope the differences could be ironed out, with Putin telling his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani on Monday that "a real chance has now emerged for finding a solution to this longstanding problem."

Israel's deputy foreign minister, Zeev Elkin, said his country did not expect a radical change in Moscow's stance.

"Russia is not about to espouse the Israeli position," he told public radio ahead of taking off to Russia with Netanyahu. "But any small budge could influence the whole process."

Israel, the region's sole if undeclared nuclear-armed state, has refused to rule out military action to halt Iran's nuclear drive. Washington has also insisted it will strike if necessary to prevent Tehran from developing a nuclear weapon.