Rice, Lavrov Face Nuclear Proliferation Gridlock

APCondoleezza Rice gesturing during talks with Sergei Lavrov at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York on Wednesday.
NEW YORK — After a month of bitter exchanges over Russia's war with Georgia, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice came face to face with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and discovered that Moscow's cooperation on Iran and North Korea may no longer be a sure thing.

The atmosphere Wednesday was awkward, but not chilly, for the highest-level contact between the two nations since Russia invaded Georgia in August in a dispute over the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia, according to a senior U.S. official who was present.

"There was not shouting, table pounding or histrionics," said Daniel Fried, the top U.S. diplomat for Europe. But neither Rice nor Lavrov was able to agree on anything beyond general statements of support for the Iran and North Korea efforts.

"This was a polite, thorough exchange of views where the disagreements were quite clear," Fried told reporters. Rice outlined the U.S. position on Russia's war with Georgia, while Lavrov repeated Moscow's defense of its military action, he said.

Fried said the United States was unconvinced by Lavrov's arguments and that problems Russia is facing because of its invasion of Georgia "cannot just be wished away."

Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Lavrov said it was not "rocky," adding that both sides had agreed to be pragmatic regarding issues that divided them, such as the brief conflict over Georgia in August.

"We agreed that we must not make this situation a rock on which everything else would hit," Lavrov told an audience at the Council on Foreign relations.

While Rice did not expect to sway Lavrov on Georgia, she was seeking Russia's support on Iran and North Korea less than a week after she raised the stakes by publicly denouncing Russia's growing authoritarianism and aggression.

With Iran nearing the ability to arm a nuclear warhead and North Korea moving to restart a disabled atomic reactor, the United States needs Russia more than ever in the international efforts to eliminate the threats.

But Russia on Tuesday scuttled high-level talks on imposing new sanctions on Iran that had been set for Thursday between the foreign ministers of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany. Even sanctions-opponent China had agreed to the meeting.

U.S. officials, including Rice, have sought to downplay the move, saying the time was not right for the session. But they had previously said such a gathering would be useful and necessary to get the fourth UN Security Council sanctions resolution on Iran.

At their meeting, Rice and Lavrov "agreed that there would come a time for another P5-plus-one foreign ministers meeting" but did not say when that might be, according to Fried, who used the formal name for the grouping.

Fried acknowledged that the group was still "grappling with the issue of how to proceed in the wake of recent developments," including Iran's continued defiance of demands to stop reprocessing uranium and how to maintain at least the appearance of unity.

"We did not discuss any sanctions," Lavrov said.

Rice and Lavrov made similar commitments on North Korea, which earlier Wednesday expelled inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency from its main reactor and plans within a week to reactivate the facility.

They discussed "ways to send the right kind of messages to the North Korean government," Fried said.

In announcing its opposition to the Iran meeting, Russia lashed out at Rice for her criticism, but Fried said Lavrov had not focused on this.

"It would be very desirable for Washington to finally decide what it wants in relations with Moscow," the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that maintained there was far less urgency on Iran than the U.S. and its European allies believe.

The statement referred to Rice's speech last week, in which she bluntly accused Russia's leaders of backsliding on democracy and reverting to Soviet-era bullying of its neighbors, saying Moscow could not continue on that path and expect international legitimacy.

"If it wants to punish Russia, this is one thing," the statement said. "If it agrees we have common interests that we must move forward on with joint effort, that is another. To use the words of Condoleezza Rice, you can't have it both ways."