MOSCOW — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived in Moscow early Monday on a two-day working visit with Russia on the verge of backing tough international sanctions against Iran, the Jewish state's arch-foe.
Netanyahu's plane touched down at 2:45 am (2345 GMT Sunday). The Israeli leader was to hold talks with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
This is Netanyahu's first official trip to Moscow since taking office a year ago, but follows a clandestine visit in September, a secretive move that highlighted the key role Russia plays in Israel's drive to thwart Tehran's alleged nuclear weapons ambitions.
"We will discuss a range of issues, but first and foremost Iran," Netanyahu told a cabinet meeting hours before he was due to leave for Moscow.
"Israel believes that strong pressure must be applied to Iran, especially very tough sanctions," he said, echoing his calls last week for "crippling sanctions" on the Islamic republic.
The visit comes a week after Russia questioned the "sincerity" of Iran's pledges not to develop nuclear weapons and, in a policy shift, said fresh UN sanctions on Tehran were a "realistic" option.
Iran declared on Tuesday it had started the process of producing 20-percent enriched uranium, as the United States stepped up its efforts to pass a new round of sanctions against Tehran by the United Nations Security Council.
Russia, one of the five permanent members of the Security Council with the power to veto any resolution, has in recent weeks toughened its stance towards Iran.
Widely considered to be the Middle East's sole if undeclared nuclear power, Israel, like the West, suspects Iran of trying to develop atomic weapons under the guise of its nuclear programme, a charge Tehran denies.
Israel considers the Islamic republic its top enemy after repeated statements by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that the Jewish state was doomed to be "wiped off the map" and the scale of the Holocaust was exaggerated.
Bringing Moscow on board for harsher sanctions has been a key goal of Israel and the United States.
Russia has long-standing ties with Tehran and is helping to build Iran's first civilian nuclear power plant in the city of Bushehr, but Moscow says it is opposed to Tehran acquiring an atomic weapon.
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