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US, Russia To Continue Cooperation on Iran, North Korea, Despite Georgia Dispute

Senior U.S. and Russian officials say the two powers will continue cooperation on ending the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs despite their bitter disagreement over Russian intervention in Georgia. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met in New York Wednesday for their first face-to-face meeting since the Georgia crisis last month. VOA's David Gollust reports from our U.N. bureau.

Neither side appears to be giving ground on Russia's invasion of Georgia and recognition of two breakaway Georgian regions, which the United States calls a grave mistake.

But U.S. officials describe the Rice-Lavrov meeting at New York's Waldorf-Astoria hotel as polite and businesslike and say they agreed to continue working together in multilateral efforts to curb the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs.

A decision earlier this week initiated by Moscow to cancel a New York meeting on Iran by the five permanent U.N. Security Council member countries and Germany, the P5+1, gave rise to speculation the Georgia dispute has had broad spillover effects on U.S.-Russian relations.

However, briefing reporters after the meeting between Rice and her Russian counterpart, Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Daniel Fried said the discussion on Iran was constructive, and that they will continue a two-track strategy of offering Tehran incentives to stop enriching uranium, and imposing escalating sanctions if it refuses.

"They discussed the way ahead and the two-track approach, but also the need to send Iran a very clear signal that the P5+1 process is intact and that the P5+1 stand by all of their work to date. And I think under the circumstances that would be an important signal, and that's what they discussed,"
he said.

Fried said the United States, Russia and the other members of the group will continue discussions on Iran at the political-director level, with the aim of holding a ministerial meeting on a new U.N. sanctions resolutions at some future date.

He said Moscow also committed to making a similar signal of its continuing commitment to the six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear program in light of the Rice-Lavrov meeting.

Mr. Lavrov himself, in an appearance at New York's Council of Foreign Relations gave a similar assessment of the meeting, saying while the sides differ on Georgia they agree on the need to be pragmatic and work cooperatively on issues of common concern including Iran and North Korea.

"We want to resolve peacefully both situations. We want to de-nuclearize the Korean peninsula, and we want to establish that the Iranian nuclear program is entirely peaceful, through the offices of the IAEA. These goals are unchanged, and it would be just irresponsible if because of some disagreements on the Caucasus, our countries should drop these over-riding goals," he said.

At the same time, Lavrov decried what he called the very emotional reaction by western countries and especially the United States to what he described as Russian action to stop Georgian aggression against South Ossetia.

The Russian foreign minister said the intervention was firmly rooted in the right of self-defense as enshrined in the U.N. Charter.

But Assistant Secretary Fried called the invasion and ensuing recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia by Russia an attempt to change Georgia's borders by force and a grave mistake on the part of Moscow.

Fried, who took part in the Rice-Lavrov meeting, said they discussed Georgia in a completely professional manner.

He said he came away from the meeting with a somewhat higher degree of confidence that Russia will adhere to its commitment under a French-brokered cease-fire deal and remove checkpoints in Georgia beyond the confines of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

But he said he fears Russia will not abide by its truce obligation to reduce troop levels in the two disputed regions to those that prevailed before the crisis began August 7. Fried said Russia has publicly declared it will keep much larger forces in the areas, and that this would institutionalize a cease-fire violation.