Vershbow: Iran and Chechnya Worry U.S.

The United States remains concerned about Russia's nuclear cooperation with Iran, U.S. Ambassador to Russia Alexander Vershbow said Monday, warning that those ties and Russian weapons sales to China could still threaten world security.

Vershbow, in a sweeping speech on the second day of a weeklong conference at Golitsyno near Moscow, also issued frank criticism of Russia's military actions in Chechnya and of threats to post-Soviet freedoms. Such criticism had been muted in recent months amid warmer U.S.-Russian ties prompted by President Vladimir Putin's support of the U.S.-led anti-terrorism campaign.

In addition, he said the United States wants to step up imports of Russian oil in the coming years as part of a strategy to diversify its sources of fuel.

"We continue to have concerns that technology and know-how for nuclear weapons are flowing to Iran," Vershbow said at the conference, according to the U.S. Embassy.

"Russia has to keep close watch on nearby countries -- Iran, Iraq, North Korea -- that are actively seeking to acquire nuclear, chemical or biological weapons," Vershbow said. "Russia has to avoid letting its desire for commercial gain end up hastening the day that these countries can pose a threat that could not only destabilize their own region, but undermine the security of the entire world."

Vershbow noted that the United States and other Western nations recently pledged $20 billion in aid to help Russia destroy or secure its weapons of mass destruction.

"We hope that in the wake of this new initiative Russia will do its part by tightening its controls on nuclear cooperation with Iran," he said.

The ambassador also expressed concern about Russia's weapons sales to China. "Could the massive amounts of weaponry that Russia sells to China -- for understandable commercial reasons -- add to the instability of Asia?" he asked. "If war broke out in the Taiwan Straits, this would lead to serious instability on Russia's eastern border."

On the economic front, he said he was "not happy" with the relatively low level of U.S.-Russian trade and investment, but said that could change with efforts to bring Russian oil to U.S. markets.

He said that at a summit in May, "our two presidents issued an important joint statement on energy that holds out the prospect for Russia to become a major supplier for the U.S. market.

"We will try to translate this into concrete deals at a U.S.-Russian energy summit in Houston in October," Vershbow said.

"Our investments [in Russia] are likely to get much larger, particularly in the energy sector," he said.

He said the United States hopes to receive more oil from Russia over the next 15 years and that Russia may become one of the main U.S. suppliers, Interfax reported.

Yukos sent its first shipment of crude to the United States earlier this month.

Vershbow also indirectly expressed concern about recent investigations of journalists and researchers by the KGB's successor agency that have alarmed human rights groups.

"Will Russians have the right to associate with one another and with those abroad as they wish, or will the state keep track of associations with foreigners and messages sent on the Internet?" he asked.

Regarding the Chechnya war, Vershbow asked: "Will Russia have the courage to seek a political solution to the bloody war in Chechnya, which continues despite the government's claims that the situation is returning to normal? Will the Russian leadership hold to account those members of the security forces who, in the name of fighting terrorism, are committing serious violations of the human rights of the civilian population?"

The Council of Europe's human rights commissioner, Alvaro Gil-Robles, who attended the same conference, said the authorities were not doing enough to end violations of civilians' rights.

Both Vershbow and Gil-Robles focused their criticism on so-called mopping-up operations in which federal forces search towns for suspected rebels.

Gil-Robles also urged action to prevent anti-Semitic attacks and punish those responsible for a spate of such incidents in recent months.

"Society cannot remain passive or indifferent to demonstrations of this sort, including posters, publications, etc.," Gil-Robles said.

Bombs have in recent months injured three people who tried to remove booby-trapped signs reading "Death to Yids." Similar signs, some with fake explosives attached to them, have sprouted up around the country.

"If a bomb is attached to a poster and it causes injury or death, this is not just an expression of xenophobia but a crime that should be punished in keeping with the law," Gil-Robles said.

According to official figures released by the military headquarters in the North Caucasus on Monday, 4,249 federal servicemen have been killed and 12,285 wounded in fighting in Chechnya since fall 1999. The military also claimed that federal forces have killed 13,517 rebels over the same period, Interfax reported.

Neither claim could be independently verified.