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MOSCOW - German Chancellor Angela Merkel met with Russian President Vladimir Putin for talks Saturday in Moscow focusing on what both sides billed as a range of vexing international issues - including Iran, Syria, Libya, Iraq, Ukraine and Russian-European gas politics.
The weekend meeting capped a particularly fraught week in the Middle East, and both leaders listed areas of possible agreement in addressing the region's crises during a news conference following the meeting.
Topping the agenda: Iran.
Merkel said Russia and Germany were "united" on the importance of preserving an international deal to limit Iran's nuclear ambitions, despite the U.S. exit under the Trump administration from the 2015 six-nation brokered agreement.
Trump's departure from the deal and the imposition of harsh sanctions against Tehran have put the U.S. and Iran on a collision course that was laid bare with the U.S. killing of a top Iranian commander and Iranian airstrikes against American military bases in neighboring Iraq.
"Germany is convinced that Iran should not have access to nuclear weapons and therefore we will use all diplomatic means in order for the agreement, which of course is not ideal, to be preserved," said Merkel, alluding to U.S. criticism of the deal as ineffective.
The Iran deal "is extremely important not only for the region, but for the whole world," added Putin, who noted that a wider war in the Middle East would be a "catastrophe."
Merkel also touched on Iran's admission that one of its own missiles was behind the downing of a Ukrainian civilian jetliner over the skies of Tehran on Wednesday that killed all 176 people aboard, including three Germans.
"Today an important step was taken," said Merkel, in referencing the Iranian admission it had accidentally fired on the plane, while calling for an "exhaustive investigation."
Putin, almost certainly aware of comparisons between the doomed Ukrainian airliner and a Malaysian Air flight that international investigators believe was shot down by a Russian missile over east Ukraine, killing all 297 people aboard in 2014, did not address the issue.
Push for peace in Libya
Touching on Libya, Putin touted a deal struck this week with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The Russian and Turkish leaders agreed to push for a cease-fire effective Sunday - despite the fact Moscow and Ankara have been backing opposing sides in the Libyan conflict.
Merkel endorsed the Russian-Turkish initiative and announced Berlin would be willing to host U.N.-led peace talks aimed at "allowing Libya to become a peaceful and sovereign country."
Prompted by a question from a German reporter, Putin also addressed the controversial issue of Russian mercenaries fighting in Libya and beyond.
Multiple media reports have linked Russian mercenaries to shadowy Kremlin-backed operations in the Middle East, Ukraine, and Africa aimed at extending Russian influence, while hiding the cost of war.
Yet Putin denied those charges.
"If there are Russian citizens there, then they are not representing the interests of the Russian state and they are not receiving money from the Russian state," said Putin, in addressing Libya specifically.
The two leaders also announced they would move forward with the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which has faced delays in recent months. It's one of several Kremlin deals aimed at supplanting Ukraine to supply Europe with Russian gas.
The Nord Stream 2 project triggered U.S. sanctions in late 2019 amid concerns by the Trump White House that the deal makes Europe too reliant on Russian reserves.
Yet Merkel pushed back against the U.S. sanctions as "the wrong path" and said Germany would push ahead with the project regardless of objections by its American ally.
"Germany and other European countries benefit from Nord Stream. Everyone is interested in diversifying their gas supplies," said the German chancellor.
"Yes, we will certainly be able to complete it on our own, without attracting foreign partners. The question is the timing," added Putin, addressing the U.S. sanctions.
The Russian leader said the project had faced some delays because of sanctions but would be online by the end of this year or the beginning of 2021.
Indeed, Merkel noted that Russia and Germany's own relations often were tense - Germany is a backer of sanctions against Russia over its actions in Ukraine - indicating the two sides could work together where mutual interests allowed.
"The point of visits like today is to talk with one another, not about one another," said Merkel.
With that, Putin cracked the slightest hint of a smile.