Russia backs Iran in post-talks finger-pointing

But while Russia put the blame for the nuclear talks' failure on an unnamed Western nation, its experts say a diplomatic solution for Iran's nuclear ambitions remains likely.

Jean-Christophe Bott/Pool/AP
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (l.), EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton (c.), and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (r.) pause during the third day of closed-door nuclear talks in Geneva on Saturday. Russian officials joined in the round of finger-pointing that followed the talks' unsuccessful end, arguing that an unnamed Western nation, and not Iran, had scuttled the talks.

The finger-pointing ramped up Tuesday over who's to blame for failure to reach an agreement in weekend talks between Iran and the world's leading powers to bring Teheran's nuclear program under acceptable international limits.

It's hard to make sense of the diplomatic back-biting that seems to be going on after most foreign ministers of the "P5+1" group – which includes France, Russia, China, the US, Britain, and Germany – gathered in Geneva on Saturday in full expectation that a historic bargain was on the verge of being struck, then left empty-handed the next day.

Most experts say a deal is almost certainly in the offing soon, and that the public theatrics are connected with last-minute maneuvering for advantage and posturing for domestic audiences.

"I think this negotiating process has reached the point of no return. There will be a deal, it's a matter of 'when' and not 'if,'" says Sergei Strokan, foreign affairs columnist for the Moscow daily Kommersant.

"The details remain secret, so it's hard to judge the various things people are saying, but it seems likely the differences are down to a few minor bottlenecks that will get sorted out soon," he adds.

In widely quoted remarks Monday, US Secretary of State John Kerry insisted that Iran backed out of a deal that was ready for inking, though he held out hope that in coming months the negotiations will yield "an agreement that meets everyone's standards."

"The P5+1 was unified on Saturday when we presented our proposal to the Iranians," Mr. Kerry said. "The French signed off on it, we signed off on it, and everybody agreed it was a fair proposal. Iran couldn't take it at that particular moment; they weren't able to accept."

Russia flatly rejected Kerry's interpretation Tuesday, suggesting that another unnamed participant of the talks had scuttled the deal.

"The draft of the joint document readied by the Americans was agreeable to the Iranians, but as decisions at the negotiations in this format are adopted by consensus, it was unfortunately not possible to come to a final agreement. This was not the fault of the Iranians," the official RIA-Novosti agency quoted a senior Russian foreign ministry source as saying.

Moscow also hit back at what it claimed were insinuations being spread in the world media that it was actually Russia, perhaps fearful that releasing Iran from its international isolation might not benefit Russia's geopolitical interest, that sabotaged the talks.

"This is a crude distortion of the facts. I would even say, the actual situation in the talks was twisted round the wrong way," the official Voice of Russia radio quoted an unnamed Russian foreign ministry official as saying Tuesday.

"Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in clear terms in Geneva that the Russian side is ready to support both the first edition of the document, agreed upon by the Americans in the [P5+1], and a draft circulated at the last moment with an understanding that it must be brought to a proper condition, which was finally agreed upon at the Geneva meeting with the Iranian foreign minister on November 9," the source is quoted as saying. "If our Western colleagues have decided to publicly disclose the negotiating tactics in Geneva, the matters actually stood this way."

Others have blamed France for introducing deal-breaking new conditions at the last moment, forcing the Iranian delegation to break off talks and return to Tehran for consultations.

A report in the Guardian suggests that Kerry and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius met at the eleventh hour and agreed to insert the tough new terms that stymied an immediate deal.

"Fabius insisted on two key points in the drafting of an interim agreement with Iran: there should be no guarantees in the preamble about the country's right to enrich uranium; and work would have to stop on a heavy-water nuclear reactor. Iran is building the Arak reactor, capable of producing plutonium, about 130 miles south-west of Tehran," the Guardian says.

For his part, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov appears to be taking the high road and refraining from the anti-Western sniping that some of his unnamed foreign ministry colleagues have been carrying out via the Russian media.

Instead, in a statement posted Tuesday on the foreign ministry's website, Mr. Lavrov offered rare praise for Kerry – whom his boss, Vladimir Putin, labelled a "liar" barely two months ago and insisted the progress toward a negotiated solution with Iran vindicates Russia's long-held position that diplomacy, not force, is the way to contain the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

"Once again I would like to note the very important role played by the delegation from the United States led by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry," Lavrov said.

"It is of principal importance for us, since Russia, as other members of the [P5+1] group and the world community in general, is interested in removing any risks for the regime of non-proliferation of nuclear weapons. This can be done only by means of talks, so it is pleasing that Russia’s position, which it has been promoting for years, in now heard by all participants in the [P5+1] group," Lavrov said.

Russia, which has maintained good relations with Tehran throughout its years of isolation, stands to gain a great deal if sanctions are removed and major engineering projects and arms deals with Iran become possible again, says Mr. Strokan.

"It's not just that a good agreement with Iran, made with Russia's participation, will look like another triumph for Putin's line that diplomacy, not military intervention, is the way to go," he says.

"But even though there may be an agreement, it doesn't mean Iranian leaders will quickly warm to the US or the West. They remain deeply conservative and suspicious. But we've had good relations all along, and when sanctions are lifted it will be Russian companies who will be first out of the gate to take advantage of the new opportunities. A deal will be very good for Russia," he says.

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