One year after seeking to "reset" U.S.-Russian ties with a gift, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was confronted this week with the possibility that this relationship may need professional help.
Clinton and her Russian counterpart clashed openly Thursday over the planned startup this summer of Iran's first, Russian-built nuclear power plant, highlighting a split in views over how to steer Iran away from nuclear weapons.
Clinton did not criticize the long-delayed project directly but said the Obama administration is opposed to the timing of the nuclear plant's startup. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin announced the summer startup plans on Thursday, shortly after Clinton arrived for a two-day visit.
The nuclear plant is an example of Russian-Iranian economic ties and technical cooperation, on terms that have long made the United States uncomfortable. It was a background issue during a difficult period in U.S.-Russian relations last year and in the ongoing U.S.-led effort to bring new United Nations economic penalties against Iran over suspicions that part of its nuclear program is aimed at building a bomb.
Putin's announcement adds another complication to the already long list of issues on which Clinton and her Russian hosts don't agree. But a positive result emerged Friday after Clinton met with Putin and said that American and Russian negotiators are "on the brink" of agreement on a nuclear arms reduction treaty.
The clash came just one week after an international setback in Israel for the Obama administration.
During Vice President Biden's visit to the United State's strongest ally in the Middle East, Israel announced new housing for Jews in east Jerusalem – a move seen by the Obama administration as an insult and a repudiation of U.S. efforts to get Israel to halt construction of additional Jewish settlements.
The clash between U.S. and Russia occurred at a news conference in Moscow with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. After talks on a wide range of issues, Clinton told reporters that Iran, while entitled to the peaceful use of nuclear energy, must reassure the world that it is not trying to build a nuclear weapon.
"In the absence of those reassurances, we think it would be premature to go forward with any project at this time, because we want to send an unequivocal message to the Iranians," she said.
Lavrov forcefully asserted that, whatever the U.S. concerns, his country will finish its work on the Bushehr nuclear power plant shortly.
"The project will be completed," Lavrov said. "We are now in the final stage, and this nuclear power plant will be launched. It will be put into operation, it will be functioning, producing power." He added that the plant will operate under strict compliance with requirements of the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog agency.
Lavrov and Clinton also asserted to reporters that U.S.-Russian negotiations on a new treaty to reduce long-range nuclear weapons are close to completion. The accord would replace the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START, which expired in December.
"We are now at the finish line," Lavrov said.
Clinton was a bit more circumspect.
"We have a saying in the United States: `Don't count your chickens before they hatch,"' she said. "And that means that we are beginning our discussions about where and when our two presidents will sign the START agreement. But we don't want to get ahead of ourselves. First, our negotiators have to sign on the dotted line, so to speak."
A Clinton spokesman, P.J. Crowley, said later that the negotiators were "down to one or two issues" before completing the deal.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.