Russian President hints at U-turn over Iran sanctions

From The Times Online:

President Medvedev gave the first hint yesterday that Russia was prepared to perform a significant policy U-turn and support US moves for sanctions against Iran.

Speaking in Moscow, the Russian leader went out of his way to be more conciliatory with the West before his visit this month to the US where he will attend the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York and the G20 summit of economic powers in Pittsburgh. A key issue on the agenda will be efforts by America, Britain and France to impose economic sanctions against Tehran if the regime does not agree to curb its nuclear programme.

It is widely expected that President Ahmadinejad of Iran, who will also be in New York, will reject any pressure from the international community. Russia has previously refused to support the imposition of sanctions on Iran, not least because it enjoys strong trade relations with the country.

But yesterday Mr Medvedev said: “Sanctions are not very effective on the whole, but sometimes you have to embark on sanctions and they can be right.”

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His remarks contradicted his Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, who last week ruled out sanctions. The possibility of a U-turn will come as a huge relief to Western diplomats who had largely given up on Russia supporting them. Trade sanctions against Iran would need the support of all five permanent members of the UN Security Council — the US, Britain, China, France and Russia. If Russia joined the Western nations, Beijing would be expected to drop its objections.

Reaching an international consensus on Iran is seen by many as the only way to force the regime into serious negotiations and avoid the threat of a unilateral military strike by Israel against Iranian nuclear facilities before the country can build its first atomic bomb.

Mr Medvedev appeared relaxed and more confident about his leadership when he met journalists and academics of the Valdai Discussion Club at the GUM department store in Moscow next to the Kremlin. At the same meeting last year, in the aftermath of Russia’s war with Georgia, he seemed far more edgy, particularly when asked who was really running Russia, him or Vladimir Putin, the Prime Minister.

Last week Mr Medvedev set out an ambitious programme of reforms through which he hopes to stamp out corruption, break Russia’s dependency on energy exports and modernise a country still overshadowed by the legacy of Soviet rule.

The Russian leader said that other reformers before him had tried and failed but that he was confident that the country was ready to be dragged into the 21st century. He said: “I don’t think we can achieve tangible results in one or two years. We could get results in 15 years.”

He went on to liken the campaign to the eradication of illiteracy in Russia, one of the great achievements of Communist rule.

The reference to such a long project suggested strongly that Mr Medvedev would like to stay on as president for another term when his mandate expires in 2012.

However that could bring him into direct conflict with Mr Putin who hinted only last week that he would like to return to the Kremlin as president possibly for two terms of six years until 2024.

The relationship between the two leaders is a constant source of debate for modern Kremlinologists. It is widely accepted that Mr Putin remains in charge of the day-to-day running of Russia even though he holds the number two job.

Yesterday Mr Medvedev tried to play down talk of differences in the partnership. “We are a good team. We speak the same language. That is what matters. We have our differences but that is normal,” he said.

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