MOSCOW -- If Hillary Clinton was hoping to win Russian support for efforts to use a threat of sanctions to pressure Iran 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, Sergei Lavrov, said that 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 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 United Nations 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 Tuesday seemed to signal 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.
Beyond wanting to wait for the results of inspections, Suslov said that Russia does a lot of business with Iran. Russia helped build Iran's Bushehr nuclear reactor, for example, and has given conflicting signs about its willingness to sell Iran its S-300 missile defense system, which could provide sophisticated air defenses for nuclear sites.
There are broader considerations about Russia's place at the global table, too. The Kremlin's role as an intermediary with Iran gives it a strong bargaining chip with the U.S., Suslov said. If Russia signed off on an American push to get the U.N. Security Council to consider sanctions, he said, Russia would "reduce its own weight and its own importance in the eyes of the United States."
If the Kremlin is sending conflicting signals about Iran, and presumably is bargaining for more concessions from the U.S. in the meantime, fellow Security Council member China is even less willing to consider sanctions against a key supplier of natural gas.
"It's quite possible that Moscow can give guarantees to Clinton that it will not work as a spoiler against future resolutions" -- on sanctions against Iran -- "in the U.N.," said Alexander Goltz, a leading military expert who writes for an online journal in Moscow.
Before it does so, however, Goltz said, the Kremlin would ask for just one guarantee: "That the Chinese will do the same."
That condition would make such an offer basically worthless, at least for now. A Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman told reporters last month, "We believe that sanctions and exerting pressure are not the way to solve problems," according to Western wire services.
"In this context, it's very convenient to say our position depends on China," said Yevgeny Volk, the coordinator of the Moscow office of The Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington-based policy organization. "It's a way of trying to explain why Russia is pursuing a policy that is in many ways anti-American."
As Volk spoke Tuesday afternoon, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was in Beijing signing multibillion-dollar agreements with the Chinese government that included extensive plans for natural gas deliveries to China. Official newswires in both capitals praised the deals as a sign that the two countries are growing closer.
McClatchy Newspapers 2009