US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton landed in Moscow Thursday, March 18, on the wrong foot. She made no headway in persuading Russian leaders to line up behind tough sanctions for Iran, any more than defense secretary Robert Gates did in Riyadh earlier this week. These setbacks left a question hanging over President Barack Obama's pledge Wednesday of "aggressive sanctions" against Iran, in the light of Russian and Chinese commitments to veto such penalties if tabled at the UN Security Council.
Clinton's talks with Russian leaders turned on the Middle East, sanctions against Iran and a new treaty to cut both their nuclear arsenals. But straight after discussing Iran with her Russian hosts, the US Secretary of State heard prime minister Vladimir Putin announce: "The launch of the first unit of Iran's nuclear power station [at Bushehr] should be implemented already this summer."
He spoke during a video conference in the southern city of Volgodonsk.
Our sources report that President Obama and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had been given Putin's word to ascertain that the Bushehr reactor would not go on line. Moscow had been expected to continue to drag its feet indefinitely before completing and activating the Iranian reactor.
Until now, all the fairly vague announcements about Russia's involvement in its construction came from relatively low-ranking officials, the most senior being Sergei Kiriyenko, head of the Russian nuclear energy commission. The fact that the new commitment came from Putin in person was seen by debkafile's Moscow sources as a message to Tehran that the Russians now took exception to Washington's line against Iran's nuclear program and intended to go through with getting the reactor up and running by mid-year.
Faced with this second contretemps, Clinton was still mildly disapproving when she faced reporters with Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov:
"…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 just as unequivocally slapped her down by insisting the Bushehr project facility "would be finished. …and this plant will open and produce electricity."
debkafile's intelligence sources report that, far from being a strictly civilian plant, the Bushehr reactor's activation will make a real contribution to Iran's military nuclear program by providing such by-products as plutonium extracted from spent fuel rods.
Friday, Clinton attended a meeting of the Middle East Quartet along with the Russian foreign minister, EU foreign policy executive Catherine Ashton, UN Secretary Ban Ki-moon and Quartet envoy Tony Blair. They predictably called on Israel and the Palestinians to help restart talks for creating a Palestinian state within 24 months and condemned Jewish housing in east Jerusalem.
US Middle East envoy George Mitchell is due to return to Jerusalem Sunday, March 21, to continue his effort to get proximity talks started.