WASHINGTON—When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met with other diplomats in New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on the evening of May 8 to discuss Iran's nuclear program, a very undiplomatic confrontation ensued.
Lavrov, apparently angered at Vice President Dick Cheney's caustic criticisms of Russia just days before, denounced U.S. policy toward Iran, according to U.S. and European diplomats briefed on the bitter exchange.
Rice rejected the criticisms, and for a moment the prospect of maintaining a united international front to stop Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons seemed to vanish.
The unusual incident two weeks ago underscores how deteriorating relations between the United States and Russia are complicating diplomacy on Iran, arguably the No. 1 security challenge for President Bush.
Top envoys from the five permanent U.N. Security Council members—Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States—plus Germany planned to meet Wednesday in London to discuss a package of carrots and sticks to be offered to Iran.
Russia says it opposes sanctions on Iran and has fought Security Council action because it fears that Washington might someday use it to justify using military force against Iran's nuclear sites.
Steven Pifer, who dealt with Russia as a top State Department official, said that even if U.S.-Russian relations were better, it's not clear that Moscow would go along with tough action on Iran. Moscow doesn't see the same threat from Iran as Washington does, he said.
Pifer said Rice and her colleagues should get credit for bringing Russia along in the diplomacy, but that effort may be reaching an end. "At some point, I think they're going to divide from us," said Pifer, now a senior adviser to the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The diplomats, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said there are tensions among Bush's aides over Russia, specifically between Rice, a Russia expert, and Cheney.
Cheney's May 4 speech, delivered in Vilnius, Lithuania, practically on Russia's doorstep and once part of the Soviet Union, criticized the reversals of democratic reforms and accused President Vladimir Putin's government of using the country's oil and gas as "tools of intimidation or blackmail."
Rice has said she saw the text of the speech before Cheney delivered it. A U.S. official also said it was coordinated with Bush's national security adviser, Stephen Hadley.
But while Cheney's criticisms were similar to what Rice and others had said publicly, his tone was much tougher.
Senior European diplomats said they suspected that Cheney, who's highly skeptical that diplomacy can work with Iran, may have been trying to torpedo Russian cooperation on the issue.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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