Thursday, March 30, 2006

BERLIN — Russia’s top diplomat embarrassed his Western partners yesterday, even as U.S. officials said they had deliberately toned down their remarks about Russia in recent weeks while seeking Moscow’s support for U.N. Security Council action on Iran.

Moments after the Western powers insisted to reporters that they were on the same page with Russia and China regarding the Iranian nuclear threat, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov contradicted them, saying he saw no evidence that Iran’s program had a military component or that it posed a threat.

“Before we call any situation a threat, we need facts, especially in a region like the Middle East, where so many things are happening,” Mr. Lavrov said after a meeting with his counterparts from the United States, Britain, France, Germany and China.

“We prefer very strongly to base our specific actions on specific facts, and in this particular case the facts could be provided by the [International Atomic Energy Agency],” he said. “So far, they have not been provided.”

U.S. officials, who along with their European allies say Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons under the cover of a civilian program, chose not to react publicly to Mr. Lavrov’s comments.

But privately, they expressed frustration and even surprise, saying the minister had been much more agreeable during their private talks.

It was the latest in a series of irritants between the United States and Russia, which complained loudly this week that Washington had thrown up new obstacles to Moscow’s entry into the World Trade Organization. Late last week, a U.S. report revealed that Russian diplomats had provided sensitive military information to Saddam Hussein during the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

U.S. officials, who angered Russia earlier this year by questioning its fitness to serve as chairman of the Group of Eight summit this year, have refrained from strong criticism of the help to Saddam.

“It’s more important now to have Russia and China” as part of a coalition on Iran than to antagonize them, a senior State Department official said.

“I’ve been trying not to talk about Russia lately,” said another senior official who has been sharply critical of Moscow’s energy policies and anti-democratic practices in the past several months.

The Western ministers were not much happier with what they heard at yesterday’s press conference from China’s vice foreign minister, Dai Bingguo, who attended the meeting instead of his boss.

“The Chinese side feels that there has already been enough turmoil in the Middle East,” he said. “We do not want to see new turmoil being introduced to the region, because that would not serve the interests of any party and would only be very detrimental to the interests of the people in Middle East.”

Even so, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her European colleagues said the Security Council is united against Iran, citing a council statement issued in New York late Wednesday that demanded that Tehran stop uranium enrichment and return to negotiations within 30 days.

The statement’s initial draft had much tougher language but was watered down at the insistence of Moscow and Beijing.

A senior U.S. official traveling with Miss Rice said sanctions against Iran were discussed formally for the first time in yesterday’s meeting, which resulted in a split between the West and the Russia-China duo.

“Russia doesn’t believe that sanctions could achieve the purposes of settlement of various issues,” Mr. Lavrov said.

Even the IAEA director-general, Mohamed ElBaradei, said yesterday that sanctions are a bad idea.

“We need to lower the pitch,” he said. “My message to Iran: The international community is getting impatient, and you need to respond by arming me with information.”

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