WASHINGTON, March 7, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Russia and the United States seemed to be united on Tuesday on Iran, with both Rice and Lavrov saying Iran knows what it has to do to avoid United Nations sanctions.
"I think the United States has been very clear that [uranium] enrichment and reprocessing on Iranian soil is not acceptable because of the [nuclear] proliferation risk," Rice said.
Lavrov agreed, and said his ministry is still trying to persuade Iran to accept a proposal under which Russia would conduct all plutonium enrichment in an effort to keep Tehran from develop nuclear weapons. And he dismissed the idea of a rift between Washington and Moscow over reports that Russia had suggested a compromise.
"This [Russian uranium enrichment] initiative is not a new one. It was welcomed by all participants of the process, and there is no compromise proposal, and there could not be any compromise proposal."
Still Time For Iran To Avoid Sanctions
The UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is meeting in Vienna to decide whether to report Iran to the UN Security Council for possible sanctions because it has resumed nuclear processing.
At the Washington news conference, Rice said it is not too late for Iran to avoid sanctions. "There is still time, of course, for the Iranians to react [to developments], but we have been very clear that we did not think that, as a first matter, we would try to move to sanctions in the first step of the [UN] Security Council."
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (right) and Hamas leader Khalid Mish'al in Moscow, March 3 (epa)
Lavrov and Rice also discussed the so-called "road map" for peace in the Middle East, which is backed by Russia, the United States, the UN and the European Union -- known as the Quartet. There has been concern in Washington after Russian officials met with members of the militant Palestinian group Hamas in Moscow recently.
The United States and the European Union consider Hamas a terrorist group and have expressed regret over their victory in last month's elections for the Palestinian parliament. But Lavrov said today that it was important that a Quartet member tell Hamas leaders face-to-face that they must recognize Israel's right to exist and renounce violence.
Lavrov said Hamas' response was encouraging.
"We did hear from them that they would respect the authority and competence of [Palestinian] President [Mahmud] Abbas. We also heard from them that they would be ready to express their position on the 'road map,' and to hopefully endorse the 'road map' as drafted by the Quartet without any reservations to be added to this 'road map.' "
Russia-U.S. Rift Denied
Lavrov's visit to Washington follows the release of a report on U.S.-Russian relations by the Council on Foreign Relations, a leading think tank. The document says that under President Vladimir Putin, Russia is becoming increasingly authoritarian and that its foreign policy too often is at odds with the West.
Rice was asked about the state of relations between Washington and Moscow.
"I want to say that we continue to enjoy good relations with the Russian Federation. We continue to work together on a number of global problems."
Rice said she and Lavrov candidly and cordially discussed Washington's concerns about domestic issues in Russia. Still, she said, the concerns aren't so great as to keep Russia out of the World Trade Organization.
Russia belongs in the WTO, Rice said, and the United States is negotiating for its accession. She said the administration of President George W. Bush is negotiating a way to bring it into the organization in a way that will please not only the WTO, but also the U.S. Congress, which must approve accession.
After their briefing, Lavrov and Rice had a half-hour meeting with Bush at the White House. Afterward, Lavrov was asked if Russia would vote for the Security Council to impose sanctions on Iran. He replied that the idea of sanctions was still hypothetical.
Economic sanctions could further undermine Iran's already shaky economy (Fars)
MOVING TOWARD SANCTIONS: If the United Nations Security Council imposes sanctions on Iran, domestic support for Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad will wane, according to ALEX VATANKA, Eurasia editor for Jane's Information Group.
Vatanka told a February 24 RFE/RL briefing that "economic sanctions will hurt the average Iranian" and, consequently, many "will blame the ruling clerics" for making life difficult and "impairing the country's long term development."
Vatanka said sanctions would be a serious challenge to the Iranian government. If harsh economic sanctions were imposed, Iran's poorest population will be hurt the hardest -- and might react "as they did in the 1970s and protest in the streets." Sanctions on travel, Vatanka said, would hurt a many Iranians because "Iran is a nation of small traders" who depend on the ability to travel to earn an income. According to Vatanka, unemployment in Iran is estimated at 30 percent, "so small trading is essential to survival." Although current U.S. sanctions "haven't worked," he said, "Iranians fear an oil embargo." He stressed that "oil revenues are a major part of the economy, so it is critical to look at this sector."
Should negotiations with the European Union and the UN fail, Vatanka believes that Iran would follow a "North Korea model," since Ahmadinejad's base of support among the "Islamist militias" has been "urging withdrawal from the NPT [Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty]." The Iranian government's "tactic" so far, Vatanka said, is governed by the belief that "by shouting the loudest, you'll get concessions [from the West]."
Listen to the complete panel discussion (about 60 minutes):
THE COMPLETE STORY: RFE/RL's coverage of the controversy surrounding Iran's nuclear program.
CHRONOLOGY An annotated timeline of Iran's nuclear program.