Sun, Feb 06, 2005 - Page 1 News List

Rice presses Moscow over Iran's nuclear program, health Russian democracy

HARDLINE CASEThe US secretary of state wants the Russians to prevent Iran covertly producing nuclear weapons by stalling on their deal for a nuclear reactor


US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was to press her hardline case over Iran's nuclear ambitions with Russia yesterday after saying the US had no plans for an imminent attack on the Islamic republic.

On her first trip abroad as the top US diplomat, the Soviet specialist will meet her Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in Turkey as the Bush administration pressures Moscow to keep on hold a fuel-supply deal for an Iranian reactor.

"We, of course, have worked ... with the Russians. And their efforts to cooperate with the Iranians on civilian nuclear power have been much more attuned recently to [our] concerns about the proliferation risk," Rice said on Friday in Britain on the first leg of a 10-stop trip to Europe and the Middle East.

"While it does not eliminate the proliferation risk, it certainly does help to mitigate [it]," she added.

Washington fears any Russian fuel supply to a reactor Iran is building in its southern port of Bushehr would move Tehran closer to acquiring a bomb under the cover of a civilian program.

Oil-rich Iran denies it is developing such a weapon and says its nuclear programs are for peaceful power generation needed to meet the energy demands of its growing population.

Rice, who has sought to allay fears of a possible military strike, says Russia's decision against delivering the fuel is part of the international community's diplomatic strategy against Tehran.

Asked in London if the US was considering military action to end Iran's programs, Rice said, "The question is simply not on the agenda at this point in time -- we have diplomatic means to do this."

Her response was unlikely to reduce global tensions over a nation US President George W. Bush said was part of an "axis of evil" with pre-war Iraq and North Korea.

Europe -- with US acquiescence -- has offered economic incentives to Iran in a proposed deal to ensure Iran does not pursue the atomic bomb.

And if those talks fail -- as similar ones did last year -- the US wants Iran reported to the UN Security Council for possible international sanctions that would have to be approved by Russia.

Some hardline US officials see the Russian supply deal as crucial to avoiding an escalation of the crisis.

They warn that Israel might strike its longtime foe should any deliveries be made, noting the country hit Iraqi facilities when former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein reached a similar stage in nuclear development decades ago.

Rice's week-long trip also seeks to repair ties with nations like Russia that were frayed because of the US-led invasion of Iraq last year.

She was to fly from Germany, which opposed the war, to Poland yesterday to thank Warsaw for sending its troops to Iraq.

Rice was also to discuss with Lavrov yesterday the Kremlin's pace of democratic reform amid complaints by Washington.

The Russian foreign ministry said in a statement this week that the talks would prepare for a summit meeting between Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin to be held on Feb. 24 in the Slovak capital of Bratislava.

Rice warned Moscow on Tuesday that it would have to accelerate its democratic reforms if it hoped to truly deepen its relationship with the US. She said Washington had to balance cooperation with Moscow on several fronts with what she called the Kremlin's "uneven" moves toward democracy.

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