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Russia opposes tougher sanctions against Iran

Defying U.S. pressure even as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton begins a visit to Moscow, Russia's top diplomat promotes negotiation over punishment to persuade Iran to halt its nuclear program.

October 14, 2009|Megan K. Stack

MOSCOW — Further sanctions on Iran would be "counterproductive," Russia's top diplomat said Tuesday, pushing back pointedly against U.S. pressure for a tougher stance on Tehran's nuclear ambitions.

The remarks from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, delivered at the side of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, appeared to undercut hopes that Moscow might agree to additional steps that would isolate Iran.

"We believe that at this stage all efforts must be focused on supporting the negotiating process," Lavrov said. "Any sanctions and threats in the current situation will, in our view, be counterproductive."

Lavrov acknowledged that odds for finding a diplomatic settlement with Iran "might not be 100%" but insisted that chances were still strong. However, his language -- "at this stage" and "in the current situation" -- left open the possibility that the Russian position could change.

In between the talk of "resetting" U.S.-Russian relations and careful assurances that the two countries share the same view of Iran, sharp differences were in evidence as Clinton began a visit to Moscow.

"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.

But many analysts now believe that Moscow is exactly where it wants to be: between the West and Iran, enjoying the lobbying and attention of both sides.

"Being in this position of having America trying to get Russia on board makes Russia look important and equal, a strong nation," said Masha Lipman, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center. "If Russia delivers, it's losing an important trump card. So Russia is consistently avoiding making firm and formal commitments on Iran."

The United Nations Security Council imposed sanctions on Iran in each of the last three years. Russia has long been leery of responding to Iran's nuclear program with additional sanctions. Moscow has extensive trade relations with Iran, including the recent construction of a nuclear power plant.

Hope that Russia would take a more forceful tone with Iran had been raised last month after U.S. and U.N. officials revealed that Tehran was building a previously undisclosed facility to enrich uranium. Visiting the United States at the time, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said that "in some cases, sanctions are inevitable."

The remark encouraged some U.S. officials to conclude that Moscow might be inching toward a tougher line on Iran's nuclear program, which Tehran says is designed for peaceful purposes but many in the West fear will lead to the production of nuclear weapons.

Medvedev's stern statement came shortly after the Obama administration announced its decision to scrap planned missile shield installations in Poland and the Czech Republic.

Russia had called repeatedly on the United States to drop the plan. Despite U.S. assurances that the radar station and missile interceptors would have defended against potential Iranian attack, the Kremlin regarded them as a threat close to the Russian border.

The decision on the missile shield was widely regarded as a concession to Moscow. Many analysts assumed it was the first part of a quid pro quo under which Russia would strike a tougher stance on Iran's nuclear program.

"But what did they get? Some vague statement that sanctions will be counterproductive, but maybe under some circumstances, blah, blah," said defense analyst Alexander Golts of Yezhednevny Zhurnal, an online publication. "I think the U.S. administration misunderstood the mentality of the Russian leadership."

On Tuesday, Lavrov sent signals that Russia also may have objections to the new U.S. missile defense plans, which call for developing shipboard systems to shoot down missiles that would be deployed closer to Iran. Russia wanted to review the details, Lavrov said, sounding piqued that Moscow hadn't been given more input on the U.S. strategy.

"The new plans . . . were not common ideas of Russia and the United States," Lavrov said. "Those plans were developed by members of the Obama administration."

Consternation has rippled Russia's ruling circles recently as rumors spread of possible missile shield installations in neighboring Ukraine.

The United States tried to reassure Moscow, saying it hadn't asked Ukraine to host any facilities. Still, the Russian government remains suspicious of the new U.S. military plans.

Clinton also met with Medvedev. She later met privately with members of Russia's struggling human rights community and liberal political representatives. Such meetings are a usual facet of high-level U.S. visits to Moscow, and are intended as a signal of support for social forces often marginalized and mistreated within Russia.

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megan.stack@latimes.com

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