Concerns about deteriorating US-Russia relations are apparently behind the two powers' surprise agreement Friday to seek a fourth Security Council resolution on Iran – a prospect that seemed all but dead only hours earlier.
The United States and Russia had been sniping at each for weeks following Russia's August invasion of Georgia. The sour tone continued this week as world leaders gathered in New York for the annual opening of the United Nations General Assembly.
But indications that other international players – including Iran and North Korea – were responding to the two powers' spat with unwelcome turns of their own appear to have refocused Washington and Moscow on common interests.
It was not clear midday Friday when the new resolution, reported by European diplomats, might be submitted for a vote. But the new resolution is not expected to include any new sanctions – something Russia has said it is reluctant to accept. Rather, it would simply be a restatement of the Security Council's determination to see Iran comply with the council's demands to cease uranium enrichment.
As such, the resolution would be an effort by the Security Council, and the US and Russia in particular, that their differences are not undermining work on other issues.
Yet even if the two powers have decided its in neither one's interest to see all cooperation stop, Russia's actions underscore its feelings that the Bush administration has not shown it any respect, that America's problems are largely of its own doing, and that it is in no hurry to do anything to come to its assistance.
"The Russians are saying, 'You are the outgoing administration; we have no inclination to do you any favors,' " says Nikolas Gvosdev, a professor of national-security decisionmaking at the US Naval War College in Newport, R.I. "Their actions in New York have been a big diplomatic raspberry to the Bush administration."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov did meet in the margins of the United Nations General Assembly Wednesday and agreed on a pragmatic approach to relations, which they said should allow diplomatic efforts on other pressing issues – including North Korea and Iran – to proceed.
But the "polite" exchange between the two top diplomats – only days after Dr. Rice gave a speech offering a grave prognosis for Russia's international standing if it maintains its posture on Georgia – was unable to provide much reassurance that strained relations between the two will mend soon.
That is especially true after the spectacle of a tit-for-tat round of meeting cancellations. The US first called off a planned meeting of G-8 agriculture ministers intended to take up global food security. That meeting would have included Russia. Russia followed by torpedoing a meeting this week that was to have brought together the foreign ministers of the six countries, including the US and Russia, leading the effort to halt Iran's uranium-enrichment program.
The downward trajectory of relations should worry US officials, according to experts in US-Russia relations.
"It's important for the United States to keep its eye on the big strategic issues, because those can be easily set back with even a little sparring going on," says Chantal de Jonge Oudraat, a Russia and Europe specialist at the US Institute of Peace (USIP) in Washington. "It's not surprising Iran and North Korea are doing what they are doing at the moment."
US officials insist that neither Rice nor the Bush administration more broadly is allowing very deep concerns about Russia's behavior in Georgia and with other neighbors to curtail contacts on other issues of common interest. While the "disagreements" between Rice and Mr. Lavrov were "quite clear" in their meeting Wednesday, they also had "constructive" discussions on other topics, including North Korea and Iran, said Daniel Fried, the US assistant secretary of State for European and Eurasian affairs.
It may not have been coincidental that European officials reported the apparent breakthrough on a fourth Iran resolution. European officials in New York had become alarmed that the US-Russia differences would hold up other action. On Iran specifically, European officials were increasingly concerned that prolonged inaction could prompt Israel to take military action against Iran's nuclear facilities.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner alluded to this when he told reporters that "the situation in Iran is serious enough that we cannot stop working on it." He predicted a lower-level meeting of the six countries working together on Iran – the UN Security Council's five permanent members plus Germany – would meet "soon."
Still, underlying what may appear to be diplomatic sparring between the US and Russia are deeper differences over how the two powers see global leadership evolving. Behind Rice's caustic remarks on Russian actions is the belief that Russia risks squandering its leadership role with an aggressive approach to its neighbors. Lavrov, on the other hand, says the US and what is called the "West" more broadly are the powers risking isolation if they resist opening up global leadership to a more multipolar world.
"The Russians look at the trends in the world, what countries are gaining powers and which are receding, and they don't see that they are the ones who risk isolation," says Mr. Gvosdev.
Mr. Lavrov said as much in a speech this week at the Council on Foreign Relations. "You can't really have it both ways," he said, "punishing Russia by canceling the forums that are very important for the entire world, while at the same time demanding Russia's cooperation on the issues that are important to you."
But he also said he interpreted his meeting with Rice as a sign that a "pragmatic" approach in relations would prevail and that differences between the two countries – which he said had always existed – would not be allowed to derail common diplomatic goals.
But even in listing Iran as a common concern, Lavrov offered a definition of the goal there that differs considerably from what the US and its European allies appear to seek. Lavrov said the goal in pressing Iran is verification by the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, that Iran's nuclear program is fully peaceful in nature. The US and the European
Union want Iran's uranium enrichment program stopped.
Of course, not all interested parties would be happy to see the US adopt a pragmatic approach to relations with Russia that puts big-picture interests over regional concerns. US allies in Eastern and Central Europe especially may shudder at the thought of the US backing off from its support of them in favor of smoother relations with Moscow.
Still, the recent references by both sides to common interests – as well as a surprise fourth Security Council resolution on Iran – will reassure some that cooler heads have prevailed as the US and Russia work through new realities in their relations.
"We just can't get too carried away with the sparring," says Ms. Oudraat of USIP, "because on the big issues like proliferation, energy security, even climate change, we need Russia."