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Clinton Looking For Russian Support On Iran During Moscow Visit

  • Gregory Feifer

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov speaks with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Moscow on October 13.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov speaks with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Moscow on October 13.

When Iran admitted the existence of a previously secret uranium-enrichment plant near the holy city of Qom last month, the news appeared to take Russia by surprise.

One official channeled Moscow's dissatisfaction to Washington, accusing American intelligence of failing to share information on Iran. But President Dmitry Medvedev sounded what appeared to be a new note.

Moscow doesn't consider sanctions the best way to solve the standoff over Iran's nuclear program, he said, but "if all possibilities to influence the situation are exhausted, then we can use international sanctions."

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will try to ascertain just how much of a change Medvedev's words represent when she meets him later on October 13 during a two-day visit to Russia, but few expect she'll win Russian support for increasing pressure on Tehran. Clinton has already held talks with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

A Clear Message

Clinton's trip comes as Western countries are mounting pressure on Iran to accept a package of international incentives in return for its cooperation over demands to stop enriching uranium. Washington is leading a drive to impose new sanctions if Tehran doesn't comply by the end of the year.

Speaking in London on October 11 at the start of a five-day European tour, Clinton said the West was "delivering a clear message" to Iran.

"The international community will not wait indefinitely for evidence that Iran is prepared to live up to its international obligations," she said.

Iran says it's only interested in developing peaceful nuclear energy. But Western countries suspect Tehran of concealing a secret nuclear weapons program.


The Kremlin has long opposed Western pressure on Tehran, and -- as a permanent member of the UN Security Council -- the Kremlin has veto power over any UN sanctions. Russia has serious business considerations in addition to political ones: Moscow is building a nuclear power plant in Iran that's due to go online by the end of the year.

Political analyst Andrei Piontkovsky says both sides want to the October 13 meetings to go well but believes they'll produce little besides "nice words."

"Washington treated [Medvedev's stance on sanctions] with great optimism, but it's completely noncommittal," he said. "So nothing has really changed. Russia is very skeptical about sanctions."

Piontkovsky says Russia isn't really interested in stopping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Many believe Moscow is playing a complicated game with the West over Iran by using its relatively good relations with Tehran to stymie the West and enhance its own position in the world.

Experts say Iran's decision to allow inspections of its uranium-enrichment facility in Qom during talks in Geneva last month will make it even harder for Washington to persuade Moscow over sanctions.

Missile Defense

During her Moscow visit, Clinton will also discuss progress on a major nuclear weapons treaty both sides say they want to sign by the end of the year, when the 1991 START nuclear arms pact expires.

But Russia's push to link the negotiations to U.S. plans for a missile defense system poses a potential obstacle. U.S. President Barack Obama recently decided to scrap Bush administration plans to install part of the missile shield in Central Europe, which Moscow said would threaten Russia.


Lavrov praised Obama's decision last week, saying it created better conditions for dialogue.

"According to our initial assessment it does not pose the same risks we talked about when plans for a missile-defense system [in Europe] were being made," Lavrov said.

But Lavrov later said the new plan "raises more questions than answers," warning Moscow could raise new objections. Lavrov also bridled at a report last week suggesting Washington was considering Ukraine as a site for an early warning radar.

After her meetings in Moscow, Clinton will travel 800 miles east to the city of Kazan, capital of the largely Muslim Tatarstan region. U.S. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said last week that Clinton wants to see more of Russia than just Moscow.

"Really, to understand Russia and its vibrancy and its diversity, you have to get outside of Moscow," Kelly said. "And I think Kazan was a good place to go because it really shows that the Russian Federation is a multiethnic country."

The trip will underscore Obama's promise to engage with a broad section of Russian society beyond the Kremlin.

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