Tempers flare over Iran nuke program

Posted in Iran | 15-May-06 | Author: Philip Sherwell| Source: Washington Times

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, with U.N. official Javier Solana (far right) and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Diplomats still are talking about a bad-tempered dinner at New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel last week at which Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, traded barbs over Iran's nuclear program.

The spat reflected deepening rifts between the United States and Russia and reduced the chances for big-power cooperation on the Iran crisis.

The tension first surfaced at a private meeting hosted by Miss Rice at a suite in the hotel for the Russian, British, French, German and Chinese foreign ministers, and spilled over into a delayed dinner.

"It was a pretty extraordinary session, and everyone's been talking about it in private since," said one official in Washington.

"It was certainly quite an introduction to the rough and tumble of the new job" for Margaret Beckett, who attended the session on her first full day as Britain's foreign secretary.

Mr. Lavrov arrived at the Waldorf for the meeting seething about a speech on Kremlin policies delivered by Vice President Dick Cheney the previous week in Lithuania.

During the May 4 speech in Vilnius, Mr. Cheney accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of restricting the rights of citizens and said "no legitimate interest is served" by turning energy resources into implements of blackmail.

Mr. Lavrov repeatedly complained about the comments during the Waldorf meeting, and then threatened to veto a Security Council resolution -- drafted by Britain and France and backed by the United States -- that would legally oblige Iran to abandon the enrichment of uranium.

Although Moscow has made clear that it opposes any use of mandatory powers in a U.N. resolution, the other ministers were left in no doubt that Mr. Lavrov's approach reflected fury over Mr. Cheney's speech.

As the mood worsened, Mr. Lavrov accused the Americans of seeking to undermine efforts by Britain, France and Germany to resolve the crisis.

He leveled particular abuse at Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns, the department's third-ranking official, complaining about his criticism of Russian involvement in Iran's Bushehr nuclear plant.

Already frustrated, Miss Rice took exception to his remarks about Mr. Burns and curtly told her guest: "This meeting isn't going anywhere."

The gathering in Miss 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 10:30 p.m., their sea bass was shriveled and the bickering continued in front of senior staff.

The next day, John Sawers, the British Foreign Office's political director, and colleagues from the other five nations worked to smooth over the dispute. They came up with a 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 United States, as Washington previously refused to back rewards for Iran. U.S. and European officials doubt privately that it will alter Iran's behavior but think that it may be the only hope of securing Russian and Chinese backing for tougher diplomatic measures, including U.N. sanctions.

The developments last week also underscore tensions between Miss Rice and the men who effectively ran U.S. foreign policy during President Bush's first term -- Mr. Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

Miss Rice was annoyed that talks on Iran with Mr. Lavrov were complicated by the vice president's remarks, but Mr. Cheney and other hard-liners want to send a tough message to Russia. They also oppose U.S. overtures to Iran and North Korea.

Indeed, they think that it is better for the United States to make clear that it is willing to pursue a solution with its allies than to become bogged down in negotiations with uncooperative partners.