Tuesday, October 13, 2009

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia pushed back Tuesday at U.S. efforts to threaten tough new sanctions if Iran fails to prove its nuclear program is peaceful, a setback to the Obama administration’s desire to present a united front with Moscow.

After meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Moscow believed that such threats would not persuade Iran to comply and that negotiations should continue to be pursued.

“At the current stage, all forces should be thrown at supporting the negotiating process,” he told reporters at a joint news conference with Clinton. “Threats, sanctions and threats of pressure in the current situation, we are convinced, would be counterproductive.”

Clinton, on her first visit to Moscow as secretary of state, had been looking to gauge Russia’s willingness to join the U.S. in applying additional pressure on Iran to come clean about its nuclear intentions.

Russia, along with China, has traditionally balked at sanctions but there had been indications that that opposition might be softening after Tehran last month disclosed a previously secret uranium enrichment site near the holy city of Qom.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said then that while sanctions are rarely productive “in some cases they are inevitable.” Lavrov stressed on Tuesday that Medvedev meant only that sanctions would be considered when all political and diplomatic efforts are exhausted.

Clinton, who met later with Medvedev, said she had not asked for Moscow’s specific support for actually imposing sanctions. But U.S. officials said they were disappointed that Lavrov had come out against even the threat of new penalties.

One senior official traveling with Clinton said the U.S. continued to believe it is critical to get tangible signs of support from Moscow for at least considering new sanctions because the more united they are, the more likely pressure on Iran is to work. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal administration thinking.

Clinton agreed with Lavrov that the U.S. believed it was important to pursue diplomacy in the carrot-and-stick approach the international community is taking with Iran. But, she also said it was critical to let Iran know what will happen should it continue to rebuff the demands.

“At the same time that we are very vigorously pursuing this (diplomatic) track, we are aware that we might not be as successful as we need to be,” she said.

“So we have always looked at the potential of sanctions in the event we are not successful and cannot assure ourselves and others that Iran has decided not to pursue nuclear weapons,” Clinton said.

She said the U.S. did not believe it was time to impose new sanctions, noting that Iran has made pledges to take small steps that if fulfilled would serve as confidence-builders. Those include opening up a recently disclosed uranium enrichment plant to U.N. inspectors and sending existing stocks of low enriched uranium to Russia for reprocessing.

Iran insists it has the right to a full domestic nuclear enrichment program and maintains it is only for peaceful purposes, such as energy production. The U.S. and others believe Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons.

Iran is already under three sets of U.N. sanctions for failing to address those.

President Barack Obama — who visited Russia in July — has vowed to “reset” U.S.-Russia relations and Clinton brought a wide range of issues to Moscow for discussion.

Clinton apologized for missing Obama’s visit because of a broken elbow, but joked that that “now both my elbow and our relationships are reset and we’re moving forward, which I greatly welcome,” she said.

While Clinton was visiting Russia, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, generally seen as Russia’s most powerful political figure, was in China to sign a framework agreement for $3.5 billion in energy deals.

Putin’s absence from the Russian capital highlighted Moscow’s growing recognition of the global clout of its eastern neighbor — and to some even suggested an effort to show the U.S. it’s not the only game in town.

Maria Lipman of the Carnegie Moscow Carnegie noted, however, that Clinton met not only with her counterpart, the Russian foreign minister, but also with Medvedev, who as president is the constitutional head of state.

As part of the emerging division of labor between the Russian leadership duo, Putin has increasingly focused on strategic business issues and Asia, while leaving diplomacy with U.S. and European officials to Medvedev, who was elected last year after being picked by Putin as his successor.

Beyond Iran, Lavrov said U.S. and Russia negotiators have made “considerable” progress toward reaching agreement on a new strategic arms treaty. The 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START, expires in December and negotiators have been racing to reach agreement on a successor.

The two diplomats also discussed possible cooperation on missile defense following Obama’s decision not to proceed with Bush-administration plans to base such a system in eastern Europe. Russia has welcomed Obama’s new approach, but has said it was eager for more detailed information.

Also on the agenda were Afghanistan, nuclear-armed North Korea, NATO expansion, the situation in Georgia after its conflict with Russia last year, human rights and arms control.

Associated Press writer Lynn Berry contributed to this report.

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