By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
MOSCOW, Oct. 13 -- Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton held lengthy talks with senior Russian officials Tuesday as part of an intense American effort to improve relations, but she made few gains on a top U.S. priority -- increasing pressure on Iran.
Clinton urged her Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, to work together on developing possible sanctions in case international negotiations over the Iranian nuclear program fail, said a U.S. official close to the talks.
But the Russian was cool to the idea, saying he was concerned about backing Iran into a corner, the U.S. official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive sessions.
Emerging from four hours of talks with Clinton, Lavrov told reporters that "threats, sanctions and threats of pressure" against Iran would be "counterproductive."
Senior administration officials said that the differences are tactical rather than substantive. Both sides agreed that Iran would face sanctions if it failed to carry out its obligations, a State Department official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
But failure to win a Russian commitment to a set of specific sanctions in advance could leave the administration vulnerable to Republican criticism that it gave the Kremlin what it wanted by overhauling missile defense plans in Europe but that it got nothing in return.
Russia's support is key to getting U.N. Security Council approval of any sanctions, but the country has traditionally been cautious on confronting Iran, a key trading partner and neighbor. In recent years, however, Russia has grown increasingly concerned about indications that Iran could be developing nuclear weapons, analysts say. Iran insists that its program is aimed only at producing energy.
Lavrov told reporters that Russia wants to focus on negotiations for now -- particularly the concessions made by Iran this month, after the revelation that it had built a secret nuclear facility near Qom. Under heavy international pressure, the Islamic republic agreed to admit inspectors and send much of its uranium to Russia for enrichment.
Clinton emphasized in her meeting with Lavrov that she favors a two-track approach of negotiations and the threat of punishment.
"We need to prepare the track of pressure. There's cajolement and there's pressure" at the same time, said the official close to the talks, describing her argument.
"Where the Russians have a different approach is. . . . they want to exhaust all the diplomatic avenues before we talk about sanctions," the official said.
During her visit, part of a five-day European trip, Clinton also met with civil-society activists at Spaso House, the U.S. ambassador's residence, promising them that promoting democracy remains an important part of the administration's agenda.
"We will lead based on values and not just interests," Clinton said.
Several of those in attendance said that they liked Clinton's speech, noting that she spoke not only about improving governance but also about accountability of the government, a subject that was not emphasized as often in the Bush years.
"It's a signal for people we are not alone," said Natalia Budaeva, country director for the International Republican Institute.
Clinton concluded her evening with a night at the opera -- Prokofiev's "Love of Three Oranges." She wraps up her visit to Russia on Wednesday with a trip to Tatarstan.
Correspondent Philip P. Pan contributed to this report.