Thursday, May 04, 2006

Moscow the Focus of Iran Moves at UN

Daniel Dombey, Neil Buckley and Guy Dinmore, The Financial Times:
Russia’s stance on Iran’s nuclear programme took centre stage on Thursday, as the United States and the European Union sought to win Moscow’s support for a hard-hitting United Nations Security Council resolution. But their efforts – inspired by Russia and China’s rejection this week of a draft resolution that appeared to pave the way to sanctions – face a double challenge.

Moscow has deep-seated concerns about agreeing a resolution under Article 7 of the UN charter, which it believes could be used at a later date to justify military conflict. “The Russians appear to have the deepest reservations,” said one European diplomat.The Chinese appear to be more flexible.”

The US and Europe also need to overcome a second obstacle – the current difficult relations between Moscow and the west. These were thrown into relief on Thursday by US vice-president Dick Cheney’s accusation that Russia had been guilty of “blackmail” against close neighbours such as Ukraine.

On a series of issues, including Russia’s energy policy, Belarus and the planned expansion of Nato, Russia is at loggerheads with US and European states.

On the Iran dossier, top diplomats from the permanent five members of the UN Security Council have met twice in recent weeks. Each time Russian objections to the US and EU’s current course of action have left the most lasting impact.

A day after the most recent meeting, on Tuesday night, the British and French presented their draft Security Council resolution in New York.

The resolution would legally oblige Iran to suspend uranium enrichment – the process that can create weapons-grade material – by an unspecified deadline, thought to be about one month. Such a timeline could bring the issue to a head in the run-up to Russia’s hosting of the summit of eight industrialised countries in July.

If the Russians say our approach is a problem, they should come forward with another solution,” said a French diplomat of the resolution. “They haven’t done this until now.”

Another diplomat said the resolution showed the west was calculating that it would be difficult for Russia to veto a resolution against Tehran.

Moscow’s public stance on Iran, however, remains unchanged – that the crisis can be resolved only by diplomatic means. It insists that Iran’s intention to produce weapons is unproven, and that International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors must be given a chance to complete their work.

It has issued strongly worded calls for Iran to restore its moratorium on uranium enrichment. But one Moscow official argues that since the moratorium was voluntary, and Iran is not in breach of international law by carrying out enrichment, coercive means to force it to restore the moratorium are not justifiable.

Privately, diplomats say Russia concedes that Iran is almost certainly seeking to acquire nuclear weapons, and is just as concerned as any of its partners.

Indeed, senior officials in Moscow are understood to be angered by portrayals of them in the US media as seeking to appease Tehran or put commercial relationships above the goals of non-proliferation. Russia has agreed contracts of about $1bn (€790m, £540m) each to build a nuclear reactor at Bushehr and provide Iran with an air defence system.

The Russian government believes it has a far better understanding of Iran – resulting from a long-standing relationship the US lacks – and of what actions are likely to be effective. It also fears the US has a hidden agenda: the goal of regime change. READ MORE

On Thursday, Dominique de Villepin, France’s prime minister, sought to reassure Moscow. “Military action is certainly not the solution,’’ he said. “Not only does it not solve anything, but it increases risks.’’

Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, stressed in talks with President George W. Bush on Wednesday night the importance of moving ahead slowly to keep the coalition together, with Russia on board. “Quite often, attempts have been made to rush matters, and to actually pre-empt what should be at the end of the process,” she told reporters.

She was apparently referring to public remarks by senior US officials that a “coalition of the willing” would go ahead with sanctions regardless of what transpired at the UN.