Clinton visits Europe & Russia

October 10, 2009 12:00 am

, WASHINGTON, Oct 10 – US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was on her way to Europe and Russia Saturday to pursue Washington’s drive to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions and rally more support behind its war in Afghanistan.

In a frenetic five-day, six-city tour, Clinton is set to arrive in Zurich on Saturday to watch Armenia and Turkey sign what aides call an "historic" Swiss-brokered deal to normalize their relations.

She then travels to London, Dublin, Belfast, Moscow and Russia’s mainly Muslim city of Kazan.

Visiting Ireland and Russia for the first time as chief US diplomat, she will aim to bolster Northern Ireland’s reconciliation process and push for a new US-Russia nuclear arms cut deal by a December 5 deadline, aides said.

But Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan have since last month taken up much of the agenda in Washington and the UN General Assembly in New York, and aides said the countries will be high on the list for her talks in Zurich, London and Moscow.

Washington has expressed some hope of eventually getting Tehran to halt its suspect uranium enrichment program since Iran met last week in Geneva with the permanent five veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — plus Germany.

The group is known as the P5-plus-1.

Clinton sounded upbeat about her talks next week in Moscow with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and President Dmitry Medvedev, who have raised hopes Russia might consider tougher sanctions against Iran if it fails to cooperate.

"Certainly the cooperation from our Russian partners in the P5-plus-1 context is very encouraging," Clinton told reporters on Thursday without elaborating. "We’re going to get down to talking about what’s the next step."

In Zurich, she will have informal talks on Iran with both French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and European Union Foreign Policy Chief Javier Solana, a senior State Department official said on condition he not be named.

Solana is the pointman for the P5-plus-1 demands on Iran — which insists it seeks only to enrich uranium for peaceful nuclear energy and not for an atomic bomb, as the United States and other powers fear.

Their fears grew after Iran was forced to reveal late last month it had secretly built a second enrichment plant buried in a mountain near the holy city of Qom.

Iran has since agreed to admit UN inspectors to the site.

James Collins, a former US ambassador to Moscow, said he expects Clinton to use her current trip to help prepare for an October 19 meeting in Vienna involving US, French, Russian and Iranian officials on the possible transfer of Iranian uranium for enrichment abroad.

That possibility emerged after the talks in Geneva.

Close ally Britain remains a key supporter of US goals in the Middle East and central Asia.

"She will talk with senior UK officials on a wide range of bilateral and transatlantic issues, including Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan," said Philip Gordon, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs.

Britain has 9,000 troops in Afghanistan, the second largest deployment after the United States.

President Barack Obama called British Prime Minister Gordon Brown Thursday to discuss the US review of its strategy in Afghanistan, amid calls from US commanders for more troops and warnings the Taliban is gaining momentum.

Gordon said Clinton will also discuss further cooperation in Afghanistan with the Russians.

In Washington, Assistant Secretary of Defense Alexander "Sandy" Vershbow said Thursday that a US-Russia deal, signed in July to allow US aircraft to fly troops and arms to Afghanistan via Russian airspace, remains on track.

"Routine flights are just a few weeks away," Vershbow said.

The need to find new transit routes into Afghanistan has taken on new importance amid instability and repeated attacks on supply convoys in Pakistan, which serves as the main path for supplies into the war-torn country.

"The Russians could provide more assistance to Afghanistan… in the form of weapons for the Afghan army, training, counter-narcotics," said the senior State Department official who asked not to be named.


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