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Rice, Lavrov expose widening US-Russia rift
Updated: 2006-03-08 10:07

The top diplomats from Russia and the United States exposed their countries' widening rift on Tuesday, publicly airing disagreements over how to curb Iran's nuclear programs and other issues, such as trade and democracy.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, pictured, February 2005, is to arrive in Washington amid increasing tensions in US-Russia ties and skepticism among Moscow's allies about its membership in the G8. [AFP]
At a news conference, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov departed from their past practice of keeping their differences behind closed doors and exchanged complaints about the other's policies.

After Rice said she had expressed US worries about Russia's democracy, Lavrov retorted that Moscow too had concerns about the United States and complained that Washington was the sole hold-out blocking its entry to the World Trade Organization.

Lavrov, on his first visit to Washington as foreign minister, did seek to stress areas of cooperation such as non-proliferation but even then acknowledged that the United States and Russia typically disagreed on tactics.

"Despite the fact that our methods in achieving the goals are not usually -- do not necessarily coincide or are identical, however, the goals ... in our cooperation are identical and are shared," he said.

This month, Russia undercut America's drive to isolate Hamas by hosting the militant group in Moscow following its victory in Palestinian elections.

Lavrov touted the talks as the start of persuading Hamas to accept Palestinian-Israeli peace accords as demanded by major broker powers, including the United States, which has eschewed direct contact with Hamas.

Rice did not comment on Moscow's discussions with Hamas but her spokesman Sean McCormack played down their significance saying the group had not made any new commitments. "I did not hear anything different from Foreign Minister Lavrov," he said.

Russia has also in recent days been seeking to forge its own agreement with Iran to curb its nuclear programs and slow the U.S. campaign for eventual UN Security Council sanctions against the Islamic republic.

After meeting President George W. Bush at the White House, Lavrov tersely dismissed a reporter's question asking if Russia supported sanctions. "Have you seen a proposal for any sanctions? This is a hypothetical question," he said.

Hours before Lavrov arrived in Washington, the United States rejected what diplomats said was a Russian compromise proposal to allow Iran to do some atomic research for programs it says are solely for generating electricity.

That prompted Lavrov to deny at the news conference that Russia had a formal proposal, a U.S. official said.

Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the Russian idea could hurt Rice's year-long effort to change a widespread perception that the United States was to blame for the failure of negotiations with Iran.

"This is a problem for the United States," he said.


Russia's diplomatic moves on Iran and Hamas come amid rising strains over what Washington sees as President Vladimir Putin's increasing grip on power, one that belies his status as chair of July's summit of the Group of Eight industrialized democracies.

On Tuesday, Rice and Lavrov stood stiffly and at one point the Russian had to reassure Rice, a former Soviet specialist, he had not planted a question from a Russian journalist about trade.

"You confirm that you did not (plant it), right?" said Rice, who has complained about the erosion of media freedoms under Putin.

That sense of suspicion contrasted with the early days of Bush's presidency when Bush said he trusted Putin after looking into his soul.

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