Clinton visits Russia

MOSCOW: US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton began a mission to Russia on Tuesday to advance negotiations for a new US-Russian nuclear arms treaty and seek Moscow's help in curbing Iran's nuclear ambitions.

On her first trip here as chief US diplomat, Clinton is to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and President Dmitry Medvedev to discuss the key topics but also efforts to bring peace to the Middle East and Afghanistan.

A US official said Clinton, who consulted British allies on Iran on Sunday, will ask the pair "what specific forms of pressure Russia would be prepared to join us and our other allies in if Iran fails to live up to its obligations."

The senior State Department official, speaking to reporters on the condition of anonymity, confirmed that sanctions would be discussed as a form of pressure.

The United States, Russia, China, Britain, France the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany, or the P5-plus-1 want Iran to halt its disputed uranium enrichment programme.

The West fears the programme masks a drive for a bomb -- a charge denied by Tehran, which says it is for peaceful nuclear energy.

The United States, France and Britain raised the alarm about Iranian intentions when it disclosed in late September that Iran had secretly built a second uranium enrichment plant near the holy city of Qom.

However, Iran has also taken a cooperative step since taking part in Geneva earlier this month in negotiations with the P5-plus-1.

And Medvedev delighted the United States last month when he said that in some possible situations sanctions would be "inevitable".

The P5-plus-1 has been instrumental in getting the UN Security Council to adopt three rounds of sanctions, although both Russia and China have until now resisted tougher sanctions.

The US official also said Clinton wants to discuss a proposal in which Iran could ship uranium to Russia for enrichment there, which would ease concerns about what it would be used for.

A source familiar with the US-Russian talks on Iran told the Kommersant daily on Monday "we are ready for sanctions only in the event that there are no significant changes for the better in the foreseeable future."

Clinton and Lavrov are also expected to discuss missile defence and negotiations to replace the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START).

Lavrov has called for "full clarification" about the new sea-based missile defence system.

The Obama administration unveiled the plan last month to replace an earlier version, backed by George W. Bush, to deploy missile defence facilities in Poland and the Czech Republic. Russia fiercely opposed Bush's plan.

START, which places strict limits on the US and Russian arsenals and is seen as a cornerstone of Cold War-era strategic arms control, expires on December 5 and negotiators have been seeking to thrash out a successor agreement.

Clinton, who last week rapped Russia's failure to bring to justice the killers of journalists and rights activists, is due Tuesday to meet members of Russian civil society to discuss Moscow's record on human rights.

Clinton will on Wednesday travel to Kazan, a mainly Muslim city in Tatarstan, the last stop on a five-day tour that has taken her to Zurich, London, Dublin and Belfast.