NEW YORK—The White House is hailing a brief public comment from Russian President Dmitri Medvedev that raises the specter of sanctions against Iran as a breakthrough for U.S. efforts to win support for a tougher global line against Tehran’s nuclear program.
At a meeting with President Barack Obama here Wednesday afternoon, Medvedev said Russia was opposed to Iran developing nuclear weapons and would consider sanctions if other avenues fail to persuade the Islamic Republican to abandon its alleged nuclear ambitions.
“We believe we need to help to take a right decision,” Medvedev said. “As to...sanctions, Russia's belief is very simple, and I stated it recently. Sanctions rarely lead to productive results. But in some cases sanctions are inevitable. Finally, it is a matter of choice.”
The National Security Council’s point person for Russia, Michael McFaul, said the Russian president’s comments were the kind of statement the U.S. officials had been seeking from Moscow for months.
“To me, that’s a very big change in their position,” said McFaul, who was clearly delighted as he discussed the development with reporters soon after the session. “I can’t improve on what President Medvedev said.”
“I don’t really see any daylight about our objectives in terms of Iran,” McFaul said.
“It was not that long ago where we had very divergent definitions of the threat and definitions of our strategic objectives vis-a-vis Iran.”
When a reporter suggested that previous administrations have claimed Russia also opposed Iranian nukes, McFaul replied, “You can read the statements from what he said under the Bush Administration and compare them. They’re different.”
Medvedev's comments came ahead of meeting late Wednesday between foreign ministers, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, over how to deal with Iran at an upcoming session with Iranian diplomats on October 1. Obama has signaled that he wants Iran to show it’s serious about abandoning its nuclear ambitions soon, or he will push for sanctions.
McFaul did not dispute that Obama’s recent decision to abandon fixed missile defense sites in Eastern Europe long opposed by Russia may have affected Medvedev’s attitude, but the NSC official insisted that the missile-defense decision was made on the merits and without any thought of a Russian quid pro quo.
“Is it the case that it changes the climate? Yes, of course. But it’s not cause and effect,” the official said.
During the meeting, Medvedev spoke positively about the U.S. move. “We talked that the decision that he took was reasonable and that reflected the position of the current U.S. administration on missile defense, and also takes into consideration our concerns on the missile defense which is needed for Europe and for the world,” the Russian president said.
“Unfortunately, Iran has been violating too many of its international commitments,” Obama said at the end of the U.S.-Russian talks. “What we've discussed is how we can move in a positive direction that resolves a potential crisis, not just in the Middle East but that can cause enormous problems to the non-proliferation regime worldwide.”
Obama said he believed the U.S. and Russia were reaching consensus on how to approach the standoff with Iran.
“I think we…both agree that if Iran does not respond to serious negotiations and resolve this issue in a way that assures the international community that it's meeting its commitments, and is not developing nuclear weapons, then we will have to take additional actions and that sanctions, serious additional sanctions, remain a possibility,” Obama said.
Almost all of the U.S.-Russian meeting was devoted to Iran and various strategies to win Iranian compliance were discussed, McFaul said.
“We have devoted lots of our time to the Iranian problem,” Medvedev said.
McFaul said the U.S. still wants Iran to talk about dismantling its program but will pursue other options if the Iranians don’t negotiate seriously at talks set for October 1.
“We’re not going to do that forever. We’re not going to haggle about that indefinitely,” he said.