Saturday, May 13, 2006

Russia and US Trade Angry Words Over Iran

Philip Sherwell, The Telegraph:
The American secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, and her Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, traded barbs during bad-tempered talks at a foreign ministers' summit in New York on Iran's nuclear programme. The exchanges provided a candid introduction to diplomacy for Margaret Beckett, the new Foreign Secretary, who attended the tetchy session at the end of her first full day in the job. The row, which further undermines hopes of a diplomatic solution to the Iran crisis, reflects deepening rifts between the United States and Russia.

Tension surfaced at a private meeting hosted by Ms Rice in the Waldorf Hotel for the Russian, British, French, German and Chinese foreign ministers, and spilt over into a much-delayed dinner.

One official in Washington said: "It was a pretty extraordinary session and everyone's been talking about it in private since. It was certainly quite an introduction to the rough and tumble of the new job for Mrs Beckett." READ MORE

Mr Lavrov arrived at the Waldorf for the meeting seething about a speech on Kremlin policies delivered by Dick Cheney, the vice-president, the previous week in Lithuania. The Russian repeatedly complained about the comments and then threatened to veto a Security Council resolution, drafted by Britain and France and backed by the US, that would force Iran to abandon enrichment of uranium.

Although Moscow has made clear that it opposes any use of mandatory powers, the other ministers were left in no doubt that Mr Lavrov's approach reflected fury over the Cheney speech. As the mood worsened, Mr Lavrov accused the Americans of seeking to undermine efforts by Britain, France and Germany to solve the crisis.

He singled out Nicholas Burns, the State Department's number three, for particular flak, complaining about his criticism of Russian involvement in Iran's Bushehr nuclear plant. Already frustrated, Ms Rice, a Russia expert, took exception to his remarks about Mr Burns and curtly told her guest: "This meeting isn't going anywhere." The gathering in Ms Rice's suite had been intended as a 30-minute chat before dinner but turned into a two-hour session. By the time the foreign ministers sat down to eat at 10.30pm, their sea bass was shrivelled and, to Mrs Beckett's surprise, the bickering continued in front of senior officials.

The next day, John Sawers, the Foreign Office political director, and colleagues from the other five nations worked to smooth over the row. They came up with a new proposal for incentives on trade deals, security guarantees and civilian nuclear technology for Iran if it halts enrichment.

The offer represented a significant tactical shift by the US, as Washington had previously refused to back rewards for Iran. Privately, American and European officials doubt it will alter Iran's behaviour but believe that it may be the only hope of securing Russian and Chinese backing for tougher diplomatic measures, including UN sanctions.

Last week's developments also underscore tensions between Ms Rice and the men who effectively ran US foreign policy during George W Bush's first term - Mr Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary. Ms Rice was annoyed that talks on Iran with Mr Lavrov were complicated by the vice president's remarks but Mr Cheney and other hardliners want to send a tough message to Russia and also oppose US overtures to Iran and North Korea.

Indeed, they believe that it is better for the US to make clear that it is willing to pursue a solution with its allies, than to become bogged in negotiation with unco-operative partners. Ms Rice's friendship with Mr Bush has strengthened her position, but Mr Cheney's intervention signals that his voice will be crucial as the administration decides whether to attack sites where it believes Iran is developing a nuclear bomb.

Meanwhile, it was revealed on Friday that UN inspectors had found traces of near bomb-grade enriched uranium on equipment at an Iranian research centre.