Despite Obama Administration’s Hopes, Russia Giving No Ground on Iran Sanctions

By Patrick Goodenough | October 14, 2009 | 5:02 AM EDT

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during talks with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton outside Moscow on Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2009. (AP Photo)

( – Hopes that Russia might be more accommodating following the Obama administration’s missile defense shift appeared premature on Tuesday, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton found no support at the Kremlin for tightening sanctions against Iran.
A senior U.S. official traveling with Clinton had said before her meetings that she would press Russian leaders on “what specific forms of pressure Russia would be prepared to join us and our other allies in if Iran fails to live up to its obligations” on the nuclear dispute.
But Clinton told a media briefing after talks with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that no requests had been made.
“We did not ask for anything today,” she said. “We reviewed the situation and where it stood, which I think was the appropriate timing for what this process entails.”
Although Clinton said Russia had been “extremely cooperative in the work that we have done together” on the Iran issue, Russian media highlighted the absence of an agreement on sanctions.
“Clinton Fails to Advance U.S. Case on Iran,” declared the Moscow Times while the RIA Novosti news agency reported, “Clinton, Lavrov agree to delay sanctions against Iran.”
Spelling out his government’s stance, Lavrov said that there are times when sanctions become inevitable – when other political and diplomatic steps have been attempted and exhausted – but “this is obviously not the case with Iran.” Sanctions “rarely produce results,” he said.
Playing down suggestions of a split between the two positions, Clinton said the U.S. did not believe sanctions should be stiffened now.
“We are not at that point yet,” she said. “That is not a conclusion we have reached, and we want to be very clear that it is our preference that Iran work with the international community” and institute confidence-building measures including opening its entire nuclear program to inspection.
Over the past four years the international community has offered Iran three proposals of incentives in return for its cooperation on the nuclear issue. Despite three sets of U.N. Security Council sanctions it spurned the first two proposals, in 2005 and 2008.
A third offer was presented by the permanent U.N. Security Council members plus Germany (P5+1) last April, and Clinton warned earlier this year that failure to respond by the end of September could lead to “crippling sanctions.”
On Sept. 9, Iran presented its response in the form of a document dealing with subjects ranging from terrorism and piracy to the environment, but silent on resolving the nuclear dispute.
Oct. 1 talks between Iran and P5+1 representatives in Geneva brought a reprieve. Clinton reported that Iran had agreed in principle to ship low-enriched uranium abroad for processing, to allow inspections of nuclear sites – including a previously-undisclosed facility near Qom – and to meet again late this month.
Asked during a British radio interview on Sunday at what stage the U.S. would adopt the threatened “crippling sanctions,” Clinton replied that the powers could move from the diplomatic engagement track to the sanctions track “if we conclude at whatever time in the next weeks that this is not proceeding as we believe it should.”
“The president has said that we want to see action from Iran by the end of this year, and I think that is a pretty good benchmark,” she added.
After a lengthy review the administration last month announced it was dropping a U.S. plan to deploy components of a ballistic missile defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic to protect against Iranian long-range missiles, and would examine instead an alternative focusing on a short- and medium-range missile threat.
Although President Obama and Clinton insisted that the decision was “not about Russia” – which had strenuously opposed to the original plan – it was widely interpreted in the region as a concession to Moscow in line with Obama’s pledge to “reset” strained bilateral relations.
In the House of Representatives on Tuesday, lawmakers debated a bill aimed at facilitating divestment from businesses involved in Iran’s energy sector.
The Iran Sanctions Enabling Act, which enjoys bipartisan support, would make it easier for state and local governments and pension funds to divest from companies investing $20 million or more in Iranian energy, and providing protection from any lawsuits that may arise as a result of divestment.
The legislation was introduced by Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), chairman of the financial services committee, and has more than 250 co-sponsors. Companion legislation is in the Senate, sponsored by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Ks.) and with 34 co-sponsors.
A similar bill passed the House in 2007, but died in the Senate.
Other legislation aimed at increasing financial pressure on Tehran and pending in Congress seeks to sanction foreign companies that sell gasoline to Iran, which imports about 40 percent of its domestic needs. The Senate banking committee is also considering combining the various measures into a comprehensive sanctions bill.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow