U.S. lawmakers and State Department officials in Washington Thursday discussed the future of relations with Russia following the country's recent re-election of incumbent president Vladimir Putin. Despite concerns about the state of democratic institutions in Russia, U.S. officials are optimistic that Russia and the United States will still work closely together on strategic issues, including Russia's controversial involvement in Iran's nuclear program.
Last Sunday, President Putin won re-election in a landslide vote amid concerns from outside observers that the election failed to meet democratic standards. European election observers said state-controlled media coverage favored Mr. Putin and there were "significant" problems in parts of the vote-count.
Speaking before a hearing of the House Committee on International Relations, Republican Chairman Henry Hyde said Russia's transition to democracy has been dramatic, but it is not yet complete. He said the institutions of democracy are untested and much of the legacy from Russia's authoritarian past is still to be overcome.
"Given these and other concerns, the government's stated goal of creating a guided democracy where the parameters of permitted dissent are significantly narrowed, is very troubling," he said.
Committee members said that Russia and the United States' collaboration on preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction has been the most important strategic issue for both countries. Amid questions over the fate of Russia's democratic institutions, there were concerns about the country's involvement in Iran's highly controversial nuclear program.
Russia says it has helped develop Iran's nuclear energy program by selling nuclear material and technology for use in the country's Bushehr reactor. The United States suspects Iran has used Russian technology and expertise to develop a secret nuclear weapons program, a charge that Iran and Russia have denied.
Democratic Congressman Tom Lantos said Russia has stonewalled and weakened efforts to learn more about the alleged secret nuclear program. "When all the leadership of our administration is incapable of persuading the Russian leadership that cooperating with Iran in its development of nuclear weapons is not in its interest and not in the global interest, we really have very little else that we can do," he said.
But U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Elizabeth Jones, testifying before the committee, said negotiations with Russia about Iran's nuclear program had experienced significant progress. She said the country has changed its attitude toward the nuclear program and President Putin pledged to suspend fuel shipments to the Bushehr reactor.
"For the first time, the Russian government acknowledges that what Iran is undertaking in terms of its nuclear weapons development program is dangerous," he said. "For the first time the Russians acknowledge that that is what is going on. For the first time they are participating with us and with others on the IAEA board of governors to find ways to persuade the Iranian government to end its nuclear weapons program," he said.
The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency said after talks with President Bush on Wednesday that Iran is now fully cooperating with the investigation into its nuclear program. Inspectors are scheduled to return to Iran on March 27.