By Jeff Mason and Michael Stott
MOSCOW (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton failed to win specific pledges from Moscow on tougher sanctions against Iran during a visit to Russia Tuesday but hailed progress in other areas such as arms control.
A senior U.S. official had said before the talks that Clinton wanted to know “what specific forms of pressure Russia would be prepared for to join us” if Iran did not keep promises to the international community not to pursue nuclear weapons.
But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov restated at a news conference with Clinton Russia’s long-standing position that any talk of sanctions against Iran at this stage was counter-productive.
“All forces should be aimed at supporting talks,” he said.
A U.S. official later told reporters of the Russian side: “They said there weren’t ready in this context to talk specifically about what steps they would be willing to take.”
The Russian side preferred to discuss any possible moves against Iran in the context of the United Nations, the official added, speaking on condition he was not identified.
Clinton praised “very comprehensive and productive” discussions with Lavrov, saying they were further evidence of the “reset” in formerly rocky U.S.-Russia relations.
“I feel very good about the so-called reset,” she said.
Clinton also insisted she had not sought specific commitments from Moscow on Iran.
“We did not ask for anything today,” she told the news conference. “We reviewed the situation and where it stood, which I think was the appropriate timing for what this process entails.”
Lavrov said “considerable progress” had been made by U.S. and Russian negotiators toward a new bilateral treaty cutting their stocks of strategic nuclear weapons.
Both sides are working to a deadline of December for concluding a new treaty to replace the landmark Cold War-era START pact.
Clinton did not address sensitive issues such as human rights and democracy at the news conference but later met a group of rights activists and opposition journalists privately at the U.S. ambassador’s residence.
The meeting was not televised but the State Department released an audio recording of the event in which Clinton told the participants, in a reference to killings of Russian journalists and rights activists:
“A society cannot be truly open when those who stand up and speak out are murdered. And people cannot trust in the rule of law when killers act with impunity.”
Clinton also met Dmitry Medvedev at his Barvikha residence outside Moscow, where the Russian president praised joint U.S.-Russian efforts to broker a peace deal between historic foes Turkey and Armenia as “a good example of our cooperation.”
But Clinton did not see the man most diplomats, analysts and ordinary Russians consider the true ruler of Russia — Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Putin is away on a visit to China.
U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision to scrap plans for an anti-missile system located in eastern Europe has helped improve ties with Moscow after stormy relations under his predecessor George W. Bush.
Diplomats say that in return the United States now wants better Russian cooperation on an array of foreign policy issues such as the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, the Iranian nuclear program, missile defense and a nuclear arms reduction treaty.
On missile defense, Lavrov said Russia had listened to U.S. plans for a new anti-missile system to replace the Bush-era plan for fixed radars and anti-missile batteries in central Europe which had upset the Kremlin.
But he was non-committal on U.S. proposals that the two sides cooperate on missile defense.
“We want to know what are these plans, what they provide for, how the concept will function,” he said. “The more we know about this concept, the sooner we will come to an understanding of whether we can work jointly on a project.”
Some Russian officials, including Moscow’s ambassador to NATO Dmitry Rogozin, have suggested Obama’s new missile defense plan, involving sea-based and mobile missiles, could pose an even graver security threat to Moscow.
Russian officials say Moscow’s concerns would only be addressed if it became an equal partner in any European anti-missile system.
(Additional reporting by Conor Sweeney)