Russia Won't Block U.S. on Iran

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By Dafna Linzer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 12, 2006

The Bush administration, working intensely to galvanize international pressure on Iran, has secured a guarantee from Russia that it will not block U.S. efforts to take Tehran's nuclear case to the U.N. Security Council, American and European officials said yesterday.

The commitment, made in a Tuesday night phone call between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, will likely help the United States and its European allies win support from key countries weighing a tougher line in response to Iran's resumption of sensitive nuclear work.

Vice President Cheney and British Prime Minister Tony Blair suggested yesterday that Iran now faces the possibility of U.N. economic sanctions if it does not halt nuclear enrichment research it began Tuesday.

According to three senior diplomats who were briefed on the call, Lavrov told Rice that Russia would abstain, rather than vote against U.S. efforts to move the issue from the International Atomic Energy Agency to the Security Council. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack confirmed to reporters that Rice had spoken with Lavrov and other foreign ministers but did not divulge details.

Russia's pledge was good only for when a vote takes place inside the IAEA. U.S. officials said they remain uncertain as to how Moscow, a traditional ally of Iran's, would react if the issue gets to the Security Council, where Moscow is one of five countries with veto power.

Still, Bush administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity saw the Russian decision as a victory and said they would spend the next several weeks lobbying China for a similar commitment. "We spent much of our time working on the Russians, but we're now moving the focus to China," said one administration official who would only discuss the backroom diplomacy on the condition of anonymity.

The White House is hoping the IAEA board will refer Iran's case to the Security Council before President Bush delivers the State of the Union address at the end of the month, according to two senior administration officials.

Four years ago, in his annual address, Bush referred to Iran as a one of three "axis of evil" countries, along with Iraq and North Korea. But his administration has been criticized by friends and opponents for failing to come up with a strategy to curb Iran's nuclear program.

The White House has been pushing for more than two years to bring Iran's case before the Security Council, but only now -- as a result of Iran's recent actions -- has it found a chance to win enough international support to do so. The timing is ideal, U.S. officials said. John R. Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, takes over the presidency of the Security Council for one month beginning on Feb. 1, giving Washington the opportunity to place Iran at the top of the council agenda.

In an interview yesterday with Fox News Radio, Cheney said "the number one item on the agenda" at the Security Council would be a "resolution that could be enforced by sanctions." He cautioned that the process, still in flux, was "speculative at this point" but added, "that will be the next step once the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency meets and concludes that the diplomatic track they've been on isn't going to work."

In London, Blair told parliament that sanctions are a serious option. "We don't rule out any measures at all," Blair said. "It is important Iran recognizes how seriously the international community treats it."

The foreign ministers of France, Britain and Germany, who are now closely allied with Washington's position on Iran, are expected to call today for an emergency meeting of the IAEA board to vote on sending Iran's case to New York.

They are assured of winning a majority of the votes from the board's 35 members. But diplomats from all three countries, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the meeting may not take place in time for Bush's speech, saying they may need several more weeks to lobby China and other influential board members, such as India. Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns will travel to India next week to press for its support.

"We expect the meeting will most likely take place around the beginning of February," one European official said.

Robert Einhorn, who was assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation until 2001, said it would be best to press Russian and China for more than abstentions. "What we need to do now is get the Russians and Chinese to tell the Iranians they won't be in a position to help them out in the [Security] Council if they go forward with this work," he said. "If the Russians and Chinese told them that, it would have quite an impact in Tehran."

Iran says its program is designed solely to generate electricity, but the Bush administration is convinced Tehran is using it as a pathway to a nuclear bomb. So far, the IAEA has not found proof of a weapons program, but Iran's cooperation with inspectors has been shaky, and many questions remain unanswered.


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