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Russia sees chance to boost US ties

Obama's outreach to Iran lifts hopes that the US and Russia can find more common ground in their bids to get Iran to curtail its nuclear program.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / March 23, 2009

I'M LISTENING: In Tehran, Marzien Masaebi watched a video of President Obama's message to Iranians expressing hopes for improved ties between the US and Iran.

Vahid Salemi/AP

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MOSCOW

President Obama says he wants a "new beginning" in US relations with Iran – and Moscow is listening intently.

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Russia may be the US's indispensable partner in any fence-mending with Tehran. And Obama's three-minute video appeal to Iran Friday raises hopes here that Moscow and Washington may also be on the path to better ties.

"There is no doubt that Obama's expressed readiness to talk with Iran pushes away the threat of war, and is an extremely positive signal in the development of US ties with Russia," says Yevgeny Satanovsky, president of the independent Institute of Middle Eastern Studies in Moscow.

Obama's message promises "engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect" and diplomacy "that addresses the full range of issues before us." But the outreach was greeted coolly by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, who said Saturday that there will be no shift in relations until the US shows "real changes" in its foreign policy.

Amid the ebb and flow of tensions over Iran in recent years, Moscow always insisted that it agrees with Washington over the desired outcome. Both countries find the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran unacceptable. But, at least until now, Moscow and Washington could not agree on a starting point, much less a road map for reaching these goals.

As presidents Dmitri Medvedev and Obama prepare for a crucial first meeting on the sidelines of next month's G-20 meeting in London, what to do about Iran could be central to their efforts to recalibrate the troubled US-Russian relationship.

While most doubt the issue can derail the negotiations for a new bilateral strategic arms control accord that are expected to take center stage later this year, many see them as the acid test of whether the two countries will be able to form a fruitful partnership for tackling a wider range of global security problems.

"There are a host of questions where tight cooperation between Russia and the US could bring about results," says Viktor Kremeniuk, deputy director of the official Institute of USA-Canada Studies in Moscow. "But we feel that the US needs to change its attitude toward Russia, and begin to treat us as a partner and not as a follower that will simply fall into line. Establishing that kind of relationship is the key to reaching accord on Iran and other burning problems."

Though Russia is not one of Iran's top trading partners (those would be Japan, China, Germany, and Italy) it has become the Islamic Republic's chief supplier of sophisticated weaponry and civilian nuclear technology. Russian security experts insist that these ties are less important than Moscow's principle differences with the US over the appropriate ways to engage with Iran over its known uranium-enrichment program and its suspected drive to obtain nuclear weapons. As a member of the UN Security Council, Russia has supported three rounds of mild sanctions against Iran, but vetoed a set of tougher measures last year.

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