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Issue 425 -- March 20 - 26, 2010
Russia-U.S. Tensions Remain During Clinton Visit With Putin
MOSCOW, March 20, 2010 -- Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin greeted Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Friday with a volley of complaints about trade, while another top Russian official voiced caution about the Obama administration's campaign for tough sanctions on Iran.
Clinton's meetings, at the end of a two-day trip, reflected continuing tensions in the U.S.-Russia relationship a year after the Obama administration launched a "reset." Although the two sides have moved closer on issues ranging from arms control to Afghanistan, cooperation remains difficult.
Putin agreed only at the last minute to receive Clinton, and used what was supposed to be a ceremonial photo op at his ornate dacha outside Moscow to criticize U.S. sanctions and trade laws in front of dozens of local and visiting reporters.
The prime minister -- considered by many to be the real power in Russia -- started out by greeting Clinton in their first meeting since she became secretary of state. Then, sitting across from her in a gilt-edged chair, he launched into a list of complaints about the drop in U.S. trade during the economic crisis, Russia's difficulties in joining the World Trade Organization and U.S. sanctions that have affected Russian companies. The latter subject appeared to be a reference to penalties on firms doing business with Iran, Syria and North Korea.
Clinton looked unfazed by the blunt lecture, which her aides attributed to the desire of a politician to perform for the Russian TV cameras on a domestically important issue. She highlighted how the two sides were coming close to a nuclear arms-control agreement and mentioned a recent visit by high-tech executives to Russia organized by the State Department and White House.
"If we continue to work together, we can move beyond the problems to greater opportunities," she said.
Clinton's agenda in Moscow was dominated by the near-complete agreement to reduce each side's deployed long-range nuclear weapons, and the U.S.-led drive for tough sanctions on Iran. She also met with international mediators to discuss Middle East peace.
In a news conference earlier Friday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov expressed caution about sanctions on Iran, saying the Kremlin was not alarmed by the Islamic republic's nuclear program and wanted to avoid "aggressive" penalties.
The remarks highlighted the limits the Obama administration could face in getting new sanctions approved by the U.N. Security Council. One of Clinton's top aides, Undersecretary of State William Burns, told reporters on her plane Wednesday that the U.S. government felt "a sense of urgency" about Iran's nuclear program and that "it's time to demonstrate that there are consequences."
But Lavrov told a news conference that the reports published regularly by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on Iran "do not give reasons for any sort of alarms."
He spoke just minutes after Clinton said almost the opposite, pointing to the latest IAEA report, the first to explicitly suggest that Iran was trying to build a bomb.
Lavrov acknowledged that the Kremlin was unhappy with Iran's latest actions -- which include rejecting a Russian-backed plan aimed at quickly reducing the Islamic republic's stockpile of enriched uranium. And sanctions were sometimes "impossible to avoid," he said through a translator, quoting a previous comment by President Dmitry Medvedev.
But sanctions "must not be aggressive, they must not paralyze" the Iranian state and should not target the population or have humanitarian consequences, he said. Instead, the penalties should be focused on "decision-makers," he said.
Analysts say the Russian government has been torn over the sanctions issue. On the one hand, it was stung to discover Iran's furtive work on a nuclear program last year, and angered by the republic's rejection of international offers to ensure its enriched uranium is used for peaceful purposes.
But powerful lobbies close to the Russian government are involved in the sale of weapons and nuclear energy equipment to Iran, and don't want to lose that trade, analysts say. In addition, the Russian government is fearful of pushing Iran to the point where it quits the international Non-Proliferation Treaty and bars nuclear inspectors, diplomats say.
Despite Lavrov's reluctant tone on sanctions, Clinton aides actually took heart at his comments. They noted he had until recently been one of the harshest critics of such penalties among senior Russian officials. His list of conditions for sanctions indicated he was ready to agree to work on a new resolution, they said.
Clinton told the news conference that U.S. efforts to get a sanctions resolution "are making progress" and that "we expect to reach consensus around an appropriate response." She expressed support for what she called Medvedev's idea of "smart sanctions" that did not harm the general public.
The U.S. government is focusing on sanctions that would target members of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps and the businesses they operate.
Russia had sought to water down three previous sets of U.N. sanctions, and its support will be crucial in getting a resolution passed.
Source: Washington Post, Friday, March 19, 2010