U.S., Russia Cooperate on Iran Amid Rifts

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 8, 2006

The United States and Russia publicly closed ranks yesterday over the need for Iran to ease international concerns over its nuclear program, but growing fissures in the U.S.-Russian relationship were apparent when Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with reporters yesterday after two days of meetings.

Though Lavrov said it was too early to discuss U.N. sanctions against Iran, Vice President Cheney had already issued a blunt threat that Iran will face "meaningful consequences" if it fails to cooperate with international efforts to curb its nuclear program. Cheney told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee yesterday that the United States "is keeping all options on the table in addressing the irresponsible conduct of the regime" and is sending "a clear message: We will not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon."

Over dinner Monday, Rice and Lavrov had a long discussion on Iran and U.S. concerns about the downward democratic trends in Russia, U.S. officials said. After Rice mentioned the dialogue to reporters, Lavrov responded that Russia has its own concerns as well, noting that the United States is the "only country" refusing to sign off on Russia's admission to the World Trade Organization.

President Bush also met with Lavrov yesterday, signifying the high stakes as the two countries try to chart a course in which their tactics and, sometimes, their goals appear to be in conflict. Lavrov, for instance, arrived in Washington after disrupting the U.S.-led international campaign to isolate the radical Islamic Resistance Movement, also known as Hamas, which unexpectedly won the Palestinian legislative elections. Lavrov had met with Hamas leaders and offered yesterday an upbeat appraisal of Hamas's willingness to meet international conditions.

Russia has played a leading role in recent months to resolve the impasse with Iran, offering to establish a joint venture on Russian soil that would enrich uranium for use in Iranian reactors. Some U.S. officials were alarmed Monday that Russian officials appeared to be floating a plan that threatened to unravel the delicate diplomacy designed to bring the Iranian program to the U.N. Security Council for debate, a long-sought U.S. goal. U.S. officials rejected the idea, which would have allowed Iran to retain a small research facility.

Yesterday, Lavrov flatly said that there is "no compromise [or a] new Russian proposal" and that Russia is determined to clarify the nature of Iran's nuclear programs and ensure it does not violate an international treaty prohibiting civilian technology from being diverted for military use.

Diplomats attending a meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna said, however, that Russia and China, two of Iran's most important trading partners, advocate measures that could include allowing Tehran to continue some form of carefully monitored, small-scale research to enable it to save face amid international pressure.

"The United States has been very clear that enrichment and reprocessing on Iranian soil is not acceptable because of the proliferation risk," Rice said, adding that Lavrov did not present a new proposal during their talks.

The IAEA board reported Iran to the U.N. Security Council last month, with the unusual provision that no action would be taken until the completion of an IAEA board meeting this week. But no further action needs to be taken for Iran's nuclear program to be taken up by the Security Council.

Rice said that, as a first step, the United States will not seek sanctions against Iran. "We will see what is necessary to do in the Security Council," she said. "There is still time, of course, for the Iranians to react."

The United States and its European partners are initially seeking a statement, to be issued in the name of the Security Council president, that would affirm the resolutions issued by the IAEA and set a time limit for Iran's compliance, U.S. and European officials said.

On Monday, when the IAEA opened its meeting in Vienna, Director General Mohamed ElBaradei expressed optimism that "an agreement could be reached" within a week to bring Iran into compliance with international demands. But, by yesterday, diplomats in Vienna seemed far less hopeful, with even European allies divided over how best to deal with Tehran.

The agency voted last month to report Iran to the U.N. Security Council over concerns about the possible military intentions of Iran's nuclear program. Diplomats involved in the IAEA discussions said today's scheduled debate on Iran will probably solidify differing opinions rather than produce an international consensus on how to persuade Tehran to cease its uranium enrichment program and provide more open access to its nuclear program.

The United States, France and Britain remain adamant that Iran should be allowed no latitude and must cease all uranium enrichment research, a condition that Iranian officials have said is unacceptable. Germany has been a key partner in the European Union negotiations with Iran, but some German officials have said the Russian idea of a small research facility has merit.

Lavrov's visit comes against the backdrop of increasing concern in official Washington over the apparent rollback of democracy under President Vladimir Putin. Bush promised to promote democracy in his second inaugural speech, and senior administration officials are debating ways to make their displeasure about Putin's actions known. The Council on Foreign Relations said, in a bipartisan task force report this week, that the administration should stop pretending that Russia is a genuine strategic partner and adopt a new policy of "selective cooperation" and "selective opposition" to Putin's government.

Staff writers Molly Moore in Vienna and Peter Baker in Washington contributed to this report.

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