WASHINGTON — Opposition led by Russia forced the Bush administration Friday to slow its drive for tighter United Nations sanctions against Iran and give the Islamic republic until late November to disclose its entire nuclear program to U.N. inspectors.
In another measure of Russia's increased influence over U.S. foreign policy, McClatchy Newspapers has learned that President Bush is sending his secretaries of state and defense on a rare joint mission to Moscow to try to persuade the Kremlin to drop its opposition to the deployment of U.S. missile defenses in Europe, two State Department officials said.
State Department officials, who requested anonymity because the visit hasn't been publicly announced, said that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates also hope to save a key arms control treaty that limits deployments of conventional military forces in Europe. Russia is vowing to withdraw from the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty partly because of what experts say is the Kremlin's anger over Bush's missile defense plans.
The talks between Rice and Gates and their Russian counterparts are set for Oct. 12, the officials said. The rare joint mission by Bush's top national security aides underscores the growing clout that Russia now wields as it reaps windfall profits from rising oil prices and U.S. power ebbs because of the war in Iraq, America's frayed alliances and domestic financial turmoil.
The administration's drive to deploy missile defenses in two countries that were long allied with Moscow, meanwhile, has helped plunge U.S.-Russian relations to their lowest point since the end of the Cold War and called into question Bush's assessment of Russian President Vladimir Putin as a soul mate and strategic ally.
Bush wants to position a battery of up to 10 interceptor missiles in Poland and a tracking radar in the Czech Republic to foil ballistic missile attacks from Iran. Russia charges that the system could be used against its missiles, upending the strategic nuclear balance with the United States, a contention that some U.S. scientists endorse.
On Friday, Russia, joined by China and Germany, prevailed in blunting Bush's drive for rapid U.N. Security Council approval of a third round of sanctions against Iran for defying demands that it suspend the enrichment of uranium. Russia and China can veto resolutions as permanent Security Council members.
Rice had pressed for quick action on a resolution during talks in New York with the Russian, Chinese, German, British and French foreign ministers. Britain and France supported Rice.
Enrichment produces low-enriched uranium for power plants and highly enriched uranium for weapons, depending on the length of the process. Iran has refused to halt its enrichment work in Natanz, claiming that it's exclusively for peaceful purposes. U.S. and European officials charge that Iran is secretly trying to develop nuclear weapons.
A statement issued by the six foreign ministers said a new sanctions vote would be delayed until the head of the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, reports in late November on Iran's answers to questions about its nuclear program.
The questions involve Iran's work on advanced centrifuges, the devices that produce enriched uranium, unexplained activities at a uranium mine and a document on the milling of uranium metal spheres, which can only be used in weapons.
The foreign ministers also asked Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign affairs chief, to hold new talks with Iran's nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, on an offer of economic and political incentives for Tehran in return for a suspension of enrichment.
"We agree to finalize a text (for a new sanctions resolution) with the intention of bringing it to a vote . . . unless the November reports of Dr. Solana and Dr. ElBaradei show a positive outcome of their efforts," the statement said.
Iran, however, could outmaneuver the Bush administration, as it has in the past, and buy more time to fully activate an industrial-scale enrichment facility at Natanz by answering some of the IAEA's questions and vowing to be forthcoming on the rest.
"So long as the process unfolds, the Chinese and Russians have said they want to hold off on sanctions," said Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations. "It is entirely possible in November that ElBaradei will say he needs another six months."
Such a development could strengthen the hand of administration hardliners, led by Vice President Dick Cheney, who argue that only a military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities or ousting the theocratic regime can prevent Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Next month's visit to Moscow by Rice and Gates stands in marked contrast to the low priority that Bush gave relations with the Kremlin after he took office in 2001. Russia at that time was in serious financial straits and bogged down in a bloody guerrilla war in the breakaway Muslim republic of Chechnya.
Since then, however, Russian resistance to some American initiatives has stiffened. U.S. officials have made no progress in two rounds of talks since July to end the Kremlin's objections to the plan to deploy U.S. missile defenses in Eastern Europe. Bush also failed to persuade Putin when the Russian leader visited the Bush family's summer home in Maine in July.
Two weeks after his visit, Putin decreed that next July Russia would "suspend" its participation in the CFE Treaty, which limits the number of troops, armored vehicles and aircraft that can be deployed in Europe.
One State Department official questioned the administration's decision to put the CFE Treaty and missile defense on top of the agenda of the Moscow talks when other issues are of more immediate concern, including the Iranian nuclear program and a dispute over independence for Serbia's ethnic Albanian-dominated province of Kosovo.
The Russians, he said, "don't understand why we're so focused" on missile defense.