TEHRAN: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov flew into Iran on Wednesday for a brief visit expected to exert international pressure on Tehran over its disputed nuclear programme, and to discuss the conflict in Syria.
The trip comes ahead of a new round of negotiations between Iran and the major powers that is to be held in Moscow next Monday and Tuesday.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on the eve of Lavrov’s visit that the Iranians “are under tremendous pressure from the Russians and the Chinese to come to Moscow prepared to respond” to proposals by the powers to alleviate the showdown over Tehran’s nuclear activities.
The Russian foreign ministry said Lavrov would devote “particular attention to preparations” for the Moscow meeting on the nuclear talks but gave no other details.
Lavrov was to meet his Iranian counterpart, Ali Akbar Salehi, and Iran’s lead negotiator in the talks, Saeed Jalili, according to officials.
Clinton, speaking to a US think-tank in Washington late Tuesday, said: “The Russians have made it very clear that they expect the Iranians to advance the discussion in Moscow. Not just to come, listen and leave. We will know once it happens.”
“The continuing effort by the Iranians to extend their influence and to use terror as a tool to do so extends to our hemisphere and all the way to East Asia. So the threat is real,” she added.
Moscow is the most sympathetic to Tehran among the six powers negotiating with it in the talks, although it has sided with the West in expressing fears that Iran could be pursuing the development of a nuclear weapons capability, which has raised the spectre of military strikes by the United States or Israel.
The so-called P5+1 group of nations — comprising UN Security Council permanent members Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States, plus Germany — offered a package of proposals to Iran in the last round, in Baghdad in May.
They called for Iran to halt its enrichment of uranium to 20 percent, ship out its stockpile of 20-percent uranium, and halt enrichment at its fortified Fordo facility.
In return they offered nuclear cooperation, spare parts for Iran’s dilapidated passenger aircraft fleet, and an easing of a EU ban on tanker insurance that hinders oil sales to Asia.
Iran’s negotiators rejected the package as grossly insufficient. They countered with a list of their own issues that included many non-nuclear topics such as regional security, and the demand that the P5+1 override several UN Security Council resolutions by agreeing that Iran has a “right” to uranium enrichment.
The distance between the two sides’ positions almost caused the Baghdad round to collapse, but last-minute discussions managed to eke out an agreement for the Moscow round, which will take place just two weeks before an EU embargo on Iranian oil imports is due to to be fully imposed.
In the past few days, Iranian officials have softened slightly their stance by saying the issue of 20-percent enriched uranium could still be up for negotiation — but only if the concession offered in return was of the same importance.
Lavrov was also to raise the issue of the Syrian conflict with Salehi, and the two were to give a joint news conference later Wednesday.
Both Russia and Iran support the regime of President Bashar al-Assad as it fights rebels in an increasingly brutal conflict that the United Nation’s peacekeeping chief characterised as having tipped into civil war.
Moscow and Tehran argue that a mooted international conference on Syria should include Iran, despite US opposition.
Russia has proposed the conference in a bid to save mediator Kofi Annan’s tattered peace plan for the 15-month Syrian conflict that a human rights watchdog says has claimed more than 14,000 lives.
“Without Iran’s involvement, the opportunity to exert constructive pressure on Syria will not be implemented in full,” Russia’s foreign ministry said on Monday. AGENCIES