MOSCOW — If Hillary Clinton was hoping to win Russian support for efforts to use a threat of sanctions to pressure Iran to come clean about its nuclear ambitions, her first trip to Moscow as secretary of state got off to a rocky start Tuesday.
Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, said economic sanctions or similar moves during the current standoff with Iran about its nuclear program would be “counterproductive.”
Clinton’s response was measured – she said that America also wants to pursue dialogue with Iran – but her remarks made it clear that Tehran’s gestures have yet to convince the Obama administration that Iran is willing to negotiate.
“We have always looked at the potential of sanctions in the event that we are not successful, that we cannot assure ourselves and others that Iran has decided not to pursue nuclear weapons,” Clinton said at a joint news conference.
Lavrov said that the Geneva meetings at the beginning of this month between Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, plus Germany, were promising enough to shelve talk, for now, of punitive measures.
Iran has agreed in principle to allow international inspectors at a previously secret nuclear facility near Qom – the first round is scheduled for Oct. 25 – and to ship most of its enriched uranium to Russia to be refined for civilian uses.
Lavrov’s announcement came despite President Barack Obama’s recent decision to scrap plans for a ballistic missile defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic, a system that the Kremlin had strenuously opposed. While both sides denied that the decision about the missile defense sites was linked to a deal with Russia about Iran, observers had suspected otherwise.
Last month, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said during the U.N. General Assembly in New York that “in some cases, sanctions are inevitable.” Later he said during an economic summit in Pittsburgh, “If all possibilities to influence the situation are exhausted, then we can use international sanctions.”
However, Lavrov seemed to signal on Tuesday that the Kremlin doesn’t think all other approaches have been exhausted yet.
Analysts in Moscow said the bottom line is that Russia isn’t going to back sanctions against Iran – at least not anytime soon.
“Russia will try to postpone, postpone and postpone the discussion on sanctions,” said Dmitry Suslov, the deputy director of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, a policy institute with close ties to the Russian government.