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US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice failed Saturday to persuade Russia to offer new support for a hard line on Iran's disputed nuclear program, during a hastily arranged trip to the Russian capital.
Rice wanted Russian cooperation as the United States and its European allies try either to draw Iran back to diplomatic talks or invoke the threat of punishment from the powerful UN Security Council.
Despite lengthy meetings with Russian officials, including a long session alone with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, it was clear Russia had not changed its opposition to using the Security Council.
The Iranian nuclear question can be handled through the UN nuclear watchdog agency, which is already monitoring nuclear activities in Iran, Lavrov told reporters afterward.
"We think that the current situation permits us to develop this issue and do everything possible within the means of this organization, without referring this issue to other organizations now," Lavrov said.
Rice said the UN Security Council "remains an option" if Iran does not cooperate.
"We've said all along there remains time for negotiations if Iran is prepared to negotiate in good faith," Rice told reporters.
The International Atomic Energy Agency last month passed a resolution warning Tehran it would be referred to the Security Council unless it allayed international fears about its nuclear program.
Russia handed the United States a subtle diplomatic victory last month when it abstained, rather than vote against that measure.
Lavrov appeared to dash US hopes for a Russian "yes" vote when the IAEA next meets on Nov. 24, but it is not clear whether Russia would actively block the move.
Iran says its nuclear activities, some of which are carried out with Russian cooperation, are intended to produce electricity, not weapons. The United States claims Iran is hiding a bomb-making project behind the shield of a legitimate energy program.
Rice also could not sway Russia on the related question of whether Iran has a right, as it insists, to enrich uranium. Enrichment is a possible step toward weapons development and the United States and European allies are determined to keep Iran from having full nuclear know-how.
Under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which Iran signed, "nations have that right," Lavrov said.
He added that Iran must not violate the arms pact, which is intended to allow peaceful use of nuclear energy under strict controls but to stop international spread of nuclear weapons and technology.
Rice was also to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin before flying to Britain for further talks on Iran and other Middle East issues. She was in Paris on Friday for similar consultations.
France, Britain and Germany have led an effort to offer economic incentives for Iran to drop the disputed portions of its nuclear program. Iran's new hard-line government walked away from talks and has resumed nuclear activities it suspended during negotiations.
The United States is expected to make a strong push to bring Iran before the UN Security Council. Russia and China, both allies of Iran and permanent members of the Security Council, could block economic sanctions or other tough punishment, if the case gets that far.
Iran has said it has nothing to fear from the Security Council, presumably out of confidence that Russia and China would veto a tough proposal for punishment from the United States or the Europeans.
Rice's discussions on Iran come at a sensitive time. Iran has indicated a willingness to return to negotiations, but not to drop what it calls its right to full nuclear know-how. Iran's supreme leader also may be trying to undercut the authority of Iran's new hard-line government.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei recently strengthened the powers of Expediency Council chief Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president who lost to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in June's elections. He recently criticized the handling of Iran's nuclear issue by Ahmadinejad's government.
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