New York Times: The Bush administration and Russia, struggling to forge a joint strategy on Iran, remain at odds over whether the United Nations Security Council should take a step toward imposing penalties on Iran by labeling its nuclear activities a threat to world peace, American and European officials say. The New York Times
By STEVEN R. WEISMAN
WASHINGTON, March 25 The Bush administration and Russia, struggling to forge a joint strategy on Iran, remain at odds over whether the United Nations Security Council should take a step toward imposing penalties on Iran by labeling its nuclear activities a threat to world peace, American and European officials say.
The officials say that the Russian-American impasse, in which leading European countries are siding with the Bush administration, has held up what the West had hoped would be a unanimous move by the Security Council on Iran this month. The impasse also has echoes of the Iraq war, they say, in that Russia is concerned about a possible replay of the United States’ using resolutions by the Council to confront Iran in the same way it acted against Iraq.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, spoke Friday to try to close a crucial difference over the language of a possible Security Council statement on Iran, specifically the statement’s reference to Iran’s nuclear activities as “a threat to international peace and security,” various officials said. That wording, by implication, would open the door for further Security Council action against Iran.
Ms. Rice said Friday that Russian and American officials would work through the weekend to resolve their differences.
The sensitive talks with Russia are only the latest in a series of difficulties that have strained relations in the last couple years. Among the irritants have been Russia’s crackdown on dissent, its cutoff of natural gas shipments to Ukraine and its efforts to extend influence in the region.
A new source of irritation could come with the disclosure from Iraqi documents that a possible Russian spy operation early in the Iraq war in 2003 provided Saddam Hussein with information about American war plans and troop movements.
A senior State Department official said Saturday that the department was studying details related to the disclosure, and no decision had been made on whether to raise the matter diplomatically with the Russians. But American officials say that Russia is extremely sensitive over the Iraq war, and it has vowed not to let the United States use pressure from the Security Council on Iran as a means to authorize economic penalties or even military action.
Russia’s foreign intelligence service has denied passing information the war plans. On Saturday, a state news agency, RIA, cited unidentified Russian security officials as saying that the American Defense Department study that included the documents seemed intended to punish Russia for opposing the 2003 invasion. “This kind of unsubstantiated allegation against Russia’s intelligence service has been voiced repeatedly,” said Boris Labusov, a spokesman for the service.
A Western diplomat, referring to the Security Council discussions on Iran, and speaking on condition of anonymity because the negotiations are confidential, said: “The Russians are worried that if you label Iran a threat to international peace, it’s the beginning of a process. If there is going to be a solution, it will have to be negotiated by Lavrov and Rice.”
The Bush administration had some hope over the weekend that the Russian-American talks could produce agreement soon. That contrasted with the mood early this week after a contentious session involving American, European, Russian and Chinese envoys at the United Nations.
Bush administration officials have declined to discuss the possibility of penalties on Iran. They and European diplomats emphasize that any future penalties against Tehran would be structured to avoid strangling the Iranian economy as a whole and stirring anti-Western resentment among ordinary Iranians.
The administration concern is that suffering by Iranians would delay the day of a more pro-Western government taking power in Tehran, undercutting a planned $85 million American program to subsidize Iranian dissidents, promote exchange programs and sponsor broadcasts to encourage pro-Western attitudes.
Despite the desire to win over Iranians, the administration and its European partners have prepared a series of escalating economic and political penalties that could be ready for imposition on Iran by the summer, officials said.
Those penalties, they said, would start with imposing travel bans or freezing foreign-held assets of Iranian officials, followed by a ban on commercial dealings with any businesses connected to Iran’s military or to its nuclear programs.
More sweeping bans on commercial, business and energy relations would be saved for later, various officials have said, adding that if the Security Council does not authorize penalties, European countries may act unilaterally after consultation with the United States.
But a ban on military and nuclear energy dealings with Iran would have immediate economic effects on Russia, which has contracted with Iran to develop military defense systems and establish a civilian nuclear reactor on the Persian Gulf coast city of Bushehr. For its part, Russia argues that penalties would backfire and cut off what little cooperation Iran is still giving.
European diplomats also say that the Russians have raised objections to the American spending plan to encourage political change inside Iran. The plan is widely seen as analogous to efforts to bring about “regime change” in Iraq a few years ago.
Iranian news media outlets, meanwhile, are praising Russia and China for trying to block a Security Council action that would impose penalties on Iran, according to Abbas Milani, director of Iranian studies at Stanford University.
“The Iranian papers are bursting with stories about how China and Russia are not caving to the American pressure to punish Iran,” Mr. Milani said. “It’s clear that they are trying to portray this as a victory for Iranian diplomacy, which has gotten Russia and China not to cave in to U.S. pressure.”
Andrew Kramer contributed reporting from Moscow for this article.