- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 14, 2009

MOSCOW | The Russian government gave Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton conflicting signals Tuesday about Moscow’s willingness to threaten new sanctions to persuade Iran to abandon the pursuit of nuclear weapons.

According to U.S. officials traveling with Mrs. Clinton during her first trip to Russia as chief U.S. diplomat, the different signals came from President Dmitry Medvedev and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

Emboldened by Mr. Medvedev’s statement after his meeting with President Obama in New York last month that sanctions may be “inevitable,” Mrs. Clinton headed into her meetings hoping to gauge “what specific forms of pressure Russia would be prepared for,” one official traveling with her told reporters.

During a news conference with the secretary, however, Mr. Lavrov said that sanctions are “very far” from being inevitable.

“At the current stage, all forces should be thrown at supporting the negotiating process,” he said. “Threats, sanctions and threats of pressure in the current situation, we are convinced, would be counterproductive.”

U.S. officials insisted there was “no daylight” between the two countries, although at least one official conceded being “struck” by Mr. Lavrov’s comments.

Mr. Medvedev “couldn’t have been clearer” during his meeting with Mrs. Clinton that he still holds the position expressed in September - that sanctions are rarely productive, but “in some cases, they are inevitable” - said the official, who asked not to be named because he was discussing a private conversation.

Mrs. Clinton said she “didn’t ask for anything today” in terms of specific penalties. She said that Washington is not pushing for more sanctions yet, but that diplomacy had to be backed by the threat of punishment.

“At the same time that we are very vigorously pursuing [the 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 that we are not successful, that we cannot assure ourselves and others that Iran has decided not to pursue nuclear weapons.”

She added that “in the absence of significant progress and assurance that Iran is not pursuing nuclear weapons, we will be seeking to rally international opinion behind additional sanctions.”

The differences between Mr. Medvedev and Mr. Lavrov could be an indication of an attempt by the president to assert himself more forcefully in foreign policy after having been in the shadow of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

In Washington, Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, suggested that “some in the administration may have overinterpreted Medvedev’s comments a few weeks ago,” but that his “formulation did mark a difference from how Lavrov and Putin had characterized the issue earlier in September.”

“Technically, what Lavrov said today does not contradict what Medvedev said a few weeks ago, but obviously the accent is different,” Mr. Kuchins said. He added that Mr. Putin, a former and possible future president, is likely to be “the final arbiter on this and any other important decision of the Russian government.”

Mr. Putin was in China on Tuesday, where he signed a major gas deal.

The U.N. Security Council, on which Russia has veto power, has already imposed three rounds of sanctions on Iran, which the West says is developing the capability to make nuclear weapons under the cover of a civilian program. However, Mrs. Clinton has promised Congress that the Obama administration will seek more “crippling sanctions” in the absence of progress in curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Iran agreed tentatively earlier this month to send low-enriched uranium to Russia for further processing and ultimate use in a Tehran reactor that makes medical isotopes.

The agreement was reached in Geneva following negotiations among Iran, the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China. Experts are to meet in Vienna next week to discuss implementing the deal, which could make it harder for Iran to stockpile enough material for a weapon.

Iran has also agreed to allow a recently revealed second uranium-enrichment plant to be inspected by the International Atomic Energy Agency later this month.

A senior U.S. official said Tuesday that Russia’s “affinity with its ally [Iran] is not exactly where it used to be” because of the revelations last month about the enrichment site near the city of Qom.

At the same time, U.S. and European diplomats said the Russians don’t want to publicly threaten Iran, given the apparent progress in Geneva.

While sounding a discordant note on Iran sanctions, Mr. Lavrov said the U.S. and Russia had made good progress on a new arms-control treaty to replace one expiring this year.

Mrs. Clinton also expressed satisfaction with U.S.-Russia relations, which have warmed considerably since Mr. Obama took office. However, she assured democracy advocates that the Obama administration’s desire for closer ties with the Kremlin does not mean it has abandoned their cause.

“A society cannot be truly open when those who stand up and speak out are murdered and people cannot trust the rule of law when killers act with impunity,” she told a group of activists who were invited to the U.S. ambassador’s residence. “You have seen friends and colleagues harassed, intimidated and even killed. And yet, you go on. You go on working and writing and speaking and refusing to be silenced.”

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