Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice failed on Saturday to persuade Russia to take a tougher line on Iran's nuclear program, an issue the Bush administration wants to take to the U.N. Security Council if Tehran does not resume negotiations to limit its ability to produce the world's deadliest weapon.
After talks that went almost twice as long as scheduled, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Russia wanted to pursue negotiations within the framework of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the U.N. nuclear watchdog, and that it was not ready to take more drastic action.
"We think that the current situation permits us to develop this issue and to do everything possible within the means of this organization without referring this issue to other organizations so far," Lavrov told reporters. Rice came to Russia on a hastily arranged stop at the end of her weeklong tour of Central Asia and Europe.
Russia, which built Iran's first nuclear reactor, and the United States have long been divided over how best to ensure Tehran's nuclear energy program is not converted into a platform for weapons production. But the issue has become more pressing since the summer, when Iran walked out of the talks with Britain, France and Germany. Tehran also recently began the first step toward resuming uranium enrichment in violation of an agreement brokered by the Europeans.
Lavrov said Moscow agreed with Washington and its European allies that Iran needs to address questions about its nuclear program. "They should be clarified," he said, because violations of the Non-Proliferation Treaty would not be tolerated "under any circumstances." But Russia's top diplomat and former U.N. ambassador also said Iran had the right, as a signatory to the treaty, to enrich uranium for energy production, a view not shared by the Bush administration.
Besides supplying Iran with nuclear technology, Russia is a key player politically. It is one of 35 members on the IAEA board, which decides whether to refer a country to the Security Council. At a meeting last month, Russia abstained on an IAEA resolution warning Iran about the consequences if it did not return to talks. The board deferred taking action, however, until the next IAEA meeting on Nov. 24. Russia is also one of the five permanent Security Council members, giving it a veto over any proposed council action.
Russia made known its differences with the Bush administration just a day after Rice and her French counterpart issued a warning to Iran about the possibility that it would be referred to the world body for possible condemnation or even punitive action if talks do not resume.
Rice said the United States had always endorsed negotiations when carried out "in good faith" and stressed that all the major parties have "common cause" in making Iran disclose the full scope and intent of its nuclear program. But in a reflection of the U.S. differences with Russia, she said that the United States still believed Iran did not need a nuclear energy program, and that a decision to pursue one entails obligations as well as rights.
En route to London, Rice said she was not disappointed with the outcome. She called the discussions with Lavrov and President Vladimir Putin "very good" and said Washington was "pleased" with efforts by Russia -- as well as Europeans and other parties -- to get Iran back into serious discussions between now and the November IAEA meeting.
Rice said it should be clear by the next meeting whether Iran will follow through on its pledge this week to return to talks and whether a renewed diplomatic effort has the potential to produce "an acceptable outcome." But she acknowledged that the Russians do not want to negotiate within a specific timetable. The administration appears to be turning up the heat on Iran. U.N. Ambassador John R. Bolton charged on Friday that Iran has spent almost two decades working on a nuclear weapons program designed to give it strategic dominance in the Middle East and "possibly to supply to terrorists."
"I think that the Iranians have been pursuing a nuclear weapons program for up to 18 years," he said in an interview with the BBC. "They have engaged in concealment and deception and they've engaged in threats before."
Rice also talked with the Russians about Syria, in advance of a U.N. report due to be released in the coming days that could point to high-level Syrian involvement in the Feb. 14 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri. Rice signaled that the United States might press for follow-up action if Syria is linked to the attack. The Security Council will "have to be prepared to act in a way that . . . allows the chips to fall wherever they may," Rice told reporters.
Rice also briefed Putin on her travels to the former Soviet republics of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, trying to alleviate concerns about the U.S. military presence along Russia's borders. That concern led Russia, China and the Central Asian countries last summer to call for a timetable for U.S. withdrawal from the region because, they said, U.S. operations in Afghanistan were winding down.
As Rice was en route to London, the State Department announced that she would host British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw in Alabama, for ceremonies commemorating the U.S. civil rights movement. Both are scheduled to give speeches on democracy.
Correspondent Peter Finn contributed to this report.