By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 7, 2008
UNITED NATIONS, Aug. 6 -- Russia said Wednesday that Iran should be granted more time to respond to a package of incentives that the United States and five other powerful nations have offered Tehran to freeze its uranium enrichment efforts, a stance that may slow U.S. and European efforts to impose U.N. sanctions on Tehran.
Russia's U.N. ambassador, Vitaly I. Churkin, said the six nations should continue negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program. He dismissed assertions by the United States, Britain and France that Tehran had missed a deadline this week to respond to the offer, which would make a push for U.N. sanctions inevitable.
"We haven't set any deadlines for their response," he said. "We have some negotiating opportunities, and rather than focus almost entirely on sanctions we should focus on what those opportunities should be."
Churkin's remarks raised the prospect of renewed strains between Washington and Moscow over Iran policy during the final months of President Bush's tenure. Administration officials say Iran is buying time to advance its capacity to enrich uranium, an effort they suspect is intended to fuel a nuclear weapon. They have made it clear they hope to secure a fourth round of U.N. sanctions against Tehran before Bush leaves office in January, according to U.N. diplomats.
Iran denies that it is seeking nuclear weapons, and says that the council has no right to prevent it from developing a civilian energy program.
The United States, France and Britain pressed ahead with efforts to punish Tehran after a conference call Wednesday between representative of the six nations. Britain's top Middle East expert, Kim Howells, indicated that the allies secured agreement with Russia and China to pursue a "dual track strategy" on Iran -- including discussion of possible U.N. sanctions and further contacts between Iran's nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, and Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign policy chief.
The latest standoff comes nearly two months after the five permanent members of the Security Council -- Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States -- as well as Germany offered to sweeten a package of economic, political and security incentives to Iran. Solana, the group's representative, gave Iran until last Saturday to accept the package or face further U.N. sanctions.
Iran said in a letter to Solana Tuesday that it is ready to respond to the offer as long as the six big powers "simultaneously" provide Tehran with a more detailed explanation of the incentives.
The United States, France and Britain accused Iran of stonewalling, and said they would begin talks on a new U.N. sanctions resolution. Churkin, the Russian representative, conceded that "we would have preferred a more straightforward and positive answer from our Iranian colleagues."
"The letter that we received yesterday appears to be a stalling tactic," State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos said. He said the big powers are "beginning to consider the possible outlines of another resolution."
Council diplomats and analysts said Russia's initiative would lend support to what they think is an Iranian effort to buy time. "The Iranians seems determine to run out the clock," said Justin Logan of the Cato Institute. "The Iran problem appears likely to be handed to the next president."