Russian Diplomat Says Snub Over Iran Meeting Was Aimed at U.S.

By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 25, 2008

NEW YORK, Sept. 24 -- Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Wednesday that his government had refused to attend a high-level meeting scheduled for Thursday to discuss Iran's nuclear ambitions in retaliation for Washington's refusal to hold a meeting of the foreign ministers of the Group of Eight industrialized powers.

The move was calculated to show the United States that it will pay a price for seeking to isolate Russia on the international scene in response to its military intervention in Georgia last month. "You cannot really have it both ways, punishing Russia by canceling the forums that are very important for the entire world at the same time demanding Russia's cooperation on the issues that are of importance to you," Lavrov said during a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations on Wednesday night.

Russia's senior diplomat made the remarks after a meeting with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. In a "polite" exchange, Rice told Lavrov that Russia "had created grave difficulties for itself" by recognizing Georgia's breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, according to Daniel Fried, the assistant secretary of state for European affairs.

Rice tried to rally European leaders at a luncheon to maintain pressure on Russia to complete the withdrawal of its forces from Georgia and to "make clear that the transatlantic community is not going to accept Russia's recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia," Fried said.

But she also sought to signal that although the United States expected Russia to pay for its action, the United States wanted to continue working closely on issues, including Iran, North Korea and Afghanistan. Fried underscored the "businesslike" tone of the discussions. "This was not shouting, table pounding, histrionics," he said.

Both sides agreed that the six major powers coordinating Iran policy -- the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany -- would continue lower-level talks aimed at ensuring that Iran further guarantee that it will not pursue nuclear weapons. But they did not schedule another round of talks. "We agreed we have to be pragmatic," Lavrov said.

Wednesday's talks took place against a background of rising tensions between the U.N. powers. Lavrov said efforts by the United States and its allies to expand NATO and establish military bases in former Warsaw Pact nations constituted "hostile policies" against Russia.

He also said that Moscow was prepared to use force to prevent attacks against Russian nationals who live outside Russia. But he said Russia has no "intention to claim anybody's territory."

The latest flap over Iran began Tuesday when Russia torpedoed an initiative, backed by the United States and Europe, to hold a ministerial meeting Thursday to press for a fresh round of U.N. sanctions against Tehran in response to its refusal to halt its most controversial nuclear programs. The meeting has been canceled.

The initiative followed the release of a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency asserting that Iran has blocked a U.N. investigation into its possible nuclear weapons research. The underlying allegations being investigated by U.N. inspectors are based on intelligence obtained by the United States and other countries.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said in a speech before the General Assembly on Tuesday that the underlying evidence is based on forgeries and that his country's nuclear program is being developed to provide electrical energy for its 70 million people.

The U.S. National Intelligence Estimate on Iran concluded that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in fall 2003. But U.S. and European officials remain concerned that Iran might restart its program.

As Rice worked to build support for Georgia, President Mikheil Saakashvili sought to address criticism that he had recklessly provoked Russia in the expectation that the United States would come to his rescue. "I had no illusion whatsoever that anyone would come to our rescue," he said.

Rice and Lavrov met as other foreign leaders spoke before the General Assembly. Afghan President Hamid Karzai voiced concern that terrorism is "spreading like a wildfire across the wider region," citing a bloody weekend attack at the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, Pakistan, that showed the "terrorists' growing reach."

He also expressed concern about reports of civilian deaths during U.S. airstrikes. "The continuation of civilian casualties can seriously undermine the legitimacy of fighting terrorism and the credibility of the Afghan people's partnership," he said.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, meanwhile, thanked foreign leaders for their help in responding to China's earthquake in Wenchuan, and he addressed concerns about China's economic and military rise. "Now, the whole world wants to know in what direction China is heading, both politically and economically, after the Beijing Olympic Games," he said. "China does not seek hegemony, nor will it do so in the future."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company