(RFE/RL) -- Russia and the United States today appeared to be moving closer together on how to approach Iran on its nuclear program.
But a visit to Moscow by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did not begin auspiciously. She arrived on March 18, only to be greeted by an announcement from Prime Minister Vladimir Putin that Iran's Russian-built nuclear power plant would begin operations this summer.
That led to a brief public disagreement between Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Clinton said she believed starting the reactor so soon would send the wrong message to Iran at a time when Washington and Moscow are trying to get it to curtail Tehran's nuclear program.
Today, though, Clinton told a news conference that relations between the two countries had improved markedly, and that the United States hopes Russia will support a fourth round of UN sanctions on Iran.
"We are now, however, at the stage where we are asking for action [regarding Iran], and are working very hard in the [UN] Security Council to obtain a resolution expressing the international community's disapproval of Iranian actions and pulling together the world in a regime of 'smart sanctions,' as [Russian] President [Dmitry] Medvedev has referred to them, that will try to change the behavior of the Iranian leadership," Clinton said.
Lavrov said Iran appeared to be determined not to take part in what he called a "beneficial dialogue" on how to resolve concerns in the international community that it is trying to build nuclear weapons, although Tehran says its program is peaceful.
Russia has long opposed sanctions on any country, but Lavrov said Iran may prove to be an exception to the rule. "Sanctions rarely work but there are cases when they become unavoidable," he said. "And I don't rule out that Iran might become one of such cases."
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev greets Clinton.
China, too, has opposed sanctions for Iran, and there's no evidence yet that it has changed its mind. Like Russia, China is a permanent member of the UN Security Council and could veto any sanctions resolution. START Talks
Clinton said that during her visit to Moscow, the two sides discussed what she called "a range of other issues," including the ongoing negotiations between Russia and the United States to replace the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) to cut the number of long-range nuclear weapons.
On March 18, both Clinton and Lavrov said the talks were nearly complete, and that the only remaining decision to be made is where and when U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev would sign the pact.
Today, Clinton reiterated her optimism about the new treaty. "We are very encouraged by progress on a new START agreement," she said. "Our negotiating teams have reported that they have resolved all of the major issues and there are some technical issues that remain. But we are on the brink of seeing a new agreement between the United States and Russia." Middle East
A thornier issue, though, was the status of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, under the mediation of the so-called Quartet -- the European Union, the United Nations, Russia, and the United States.
Last week, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden went to Jerusalem to help kick-start the indirect or "proximity" talks between the two sides. But shortly after he arrived, the Israeli Interior Ministry unveiled plans to build 1,600 new housing units in East Jerusalem.
The Palestinians, who claim the same land as part of their future capital under any two-state peace solution, said they would refuse to take part in the talks unless the housing scheme were scrapped. Biden condemned the announcement, and Clinton later said its timing during Biden's visit was "insulting."
Today in Moscow, the Quartet demanded that Israel freeze all settlement construction. Clinton and Lavrov were joined by leaders of the other two Quartet factions, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and EU foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton, as well as by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the Quartet's special representative.
Ban left no doubt of the Quartet's position, saying it "urges the government of Israel to freeze all settlement activity, including 'natural growth,' dismantle outposts erected since March 2001, and to refrain from demolitions and evictions in East Jerusalem."
Ban said no party should take unilateral actions in East Jerusalem, whose status is to be negotiated as part of any permanent peace deal.
"The annexation of East Jerusalem is not recognized by the international community," Ban said. "The Quartet underscores that the status of Jerusalem is a permanent status issue that must be resolved through negotiations between the parties and condemns the decision by the government of Israel to advance planning for new housing units in East Jerusalem."
Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu spoke by phone on March 18. Afterward, Netanyahu's spokesman, Nir Chefetz, said the Israeli leader had proposed what he called "confidence-building steps" that both Israelis and Palestinians could take. He did not provide any details.with agency reports