US, Russia clash over Iran plant
Tehran’s goals still unclear, Clinton says
MOSCOW — US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and her Russian counterpart clashed openly yesterday over the planned launch this summer of Iran’s first nuclear power plant, highlighting a split in views over how to steer Iran away from nuclear weapons.
Clinton did not directly criticize the long-delayed project, built by Russians, but said the Obama administration is opposed to the timing of the nuclear plant’s start-up. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin of Russia announced the summer startup plans earlier yesterday, shortly after Clinton arrived for a two-day visit.
The nuclear plant is an example of Russian-Iranian economic ties and technical cooperation, on terms that have long made the United States uncomfortable. It was a background issue during a difficult period in US-Russian relations last year and in the ongoing US-led effort to increase United Nations economic penalties against Iran over suspicions that part of its nuclear program is aimed at building a bomb.
Putin’s announcement adds another complication to the already long list of issues on which Clinton and her Russian hosts do not agree. Clinton is meeting with Putin today.
At a news conference with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov after talks on a wide range of issues, Clinton told reporters that Iran, while entitled to the peaceful use of nuclear energy, must reassure the world that it is not trying to build a nuclear weapon.
“In the absence of those reassurances, we think it would be premature to go forward with any project at this time, because we want to send an unequivocal message to the Iranians,’’ she said.
Lavrov forcefully asserted that, whatever the US concerns, his country will finish its work on the Bushehr nuclear power plant shortly.
“The project will be completed,’’ Lavrov said. “We are now in the final stage, and this nuclear power plant will be launched. It will be put into operation, it will be functioning, producing power.’’
He added that the plant will operate under strict compliance with requirements of the UN’s nuclear watchdog agency.
Also, Lavrov and Clinton asserted to reporters that US-Russian negotiations on a new treaty to reduce long-range nuclear weapons are close to completion. The accord would replace the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START, which expired in December.
Lavrov said the two sides now are discussing the time and place for President Obama and President Dmitry Medvedev of Russia to sign the new deal, which also must be ratified by each country’s legislature.
“We are now at the finish line,’’ Lavrov said.
Clinton was a bit more circumspect.
“We have a saying in the United States: ‘Don’t count your chickens before they hatch,’’’ she said. “And that means that we are beginning our discussions about where and when our two presidents will sign the START agreement. But we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves. First, our negotiators have to sign on the dotted line.’’
A Clinton spokesman, P.J. Crowley, said later that the negotiators were “down to one or two issues.’’
Another negotiating session was set for today in Geneva.
The Obama administration has been unsuccessful in pressing Iran to take steps to reassure the world of its nuclear intentions and has pointed to its secret construction of a uranium enrichment plant — disclosed by the West last fall — as evidence that Iran’s intentions are not purely peaceful.