Russia and the United States mean to sign the TART follow-on treaty on December 5.

Presidents Dmitry Medvedev and Barack Obama met within the framework of the APEC summit in Singapore. Their meeting finally settled the key issue of the bilateral agenda. The discord over the START follow-on treaty notwithstanding, Moscow and Washington are resolved to sign it next month no matter what. Moreover, Washington is even prepared to meet Moscow halfway on certain matters. The Russian-American summit on December 5 will be a truly momentous event for another reason as well. Should the talks with Tehran fail to accomplish the desired objective before then, Russia will probably back the decision to slap sanctions on Iran.

Medvedev and Obama met on the American territory, namely on the premises of the Shangri-La Hotel where the American delegation had set quarters. The negotiations were expected to show whether or not Russia and the United States were ready to sign the START follow-on treaty on December 5 as the national leaders had pledged to do. Ellen Tauscher, US Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security, admitted existence of serious obstacles when she proclaimed Washington “disappointed” with the Kremlin’s reaction to its offers the other day.

When they were meeting with journalists yesterday, however, Medvedev and Obama radiated optimism. Judging by their demeanor, they had made it. “The “reload” button is working,” Obama said. Medvedev complimented the talks just finished on their atmosphere.

The presidents had been updated on the experts’ efforts to date and on the problems encountered in the course of the consultations. A source well acquainted with the START consultations explained that the Russian and American negotiators had been stymied by two issues – minimum amount of delivery means and mobile ICBM control mechanisms. The maximum amount of delivery means permitted signatories of the would-be treaty posed no obstacles, the source said.

As a matter of fact, the minimum amount matter became an issue right after the meeting between Medvedev and Obama in Moscow this July. The United States suggested 1,100 delivery means per signatory while Moscow stood for a more conservative figure of 500. These nearly polar opinions were accounted for in the Joint Understanding for the START Follow-on Treaty adopted then. Working diligently, Russian and American negotiators narrowed down the gap some, but not sufficiently from Moscow’s standpoint. What information is available at this point indicates that the Americans are prepared to accept 800 delivery means as the compromise. In any event, the other discord in the talks came down to Washington’s determination to retain control over the Russian Topols and Moscow’s resolve to deny it to the Americans.

The presidents carefully avoided both issues at the joint press conference yesterday. Medvedev merely acknowledged the necessity to find a solution to “certain issues, some of them technical and others political” and Obama recognized existence of “complicated technical issues” that had to be settled. All the same, both presidents confirmed their resolve to have the START follow-on treaty prepared for signing in early December.

“I hope that we will have the final text ready by December, just as we agreed at the first meeting in London and at the ensuing meetings,” Medvedev said. Obama agreed with him.

It was Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov who provided an explanation for the Russian and American leaders’ optimism. He said that Medvedev and Obama had agreed to make control and verification mechanisms “less complicated and less costly” and issued appropriate orders to the negotiators. It probably meant Washington’s readiness to meet Russia halfway in the matter of ICBM control mechanisms and that in its turn made the START follow-on treaty signing on December 5 a distinct possibility.

Speaking before journalists in Singapore, Obama spoke of Iran – another central issue on the Russian-American (actually, on international) agenda. According to the American president, the United States and Russia were offering Tehran a choice. It could opt for integration into the international community through abandonment of nuclear aspirations or it could choose pressure from the international community. The impression was that the United States had already made its mind on what Tehran would prefer. “Regrettably, Iran has never responded to offers,” Obama said. “Its time is running out.” The situation being what it was, he said, “… Russia and the United States will advise Iran to opt for fulfillment of its international obligations and, on the other hand, discuss alternative options.”

Obama’s words were an indication that Washington and Moscow would discuss sanctions unless Tehran met the demands of the international community in connection with its nuclear program. In fact, Medvedev actually confirmed it, indirectly. He defined objective of the negotiations with Iran as “a transparent nuclear program rather than one making the international community suspicious.” “Unless an agreement is reached, there are always other options to resort to,” Medvedev said. It was essentially a confirmation of what he had told Obama in New York this September: Moscow would have gladly done without sanctions but Tehran’s persistence was leaving it without alternatives.

Elaborating on these words later on, Lavrov did his best to present Moscow’s position as less tenacious than that. “Our position remain unchanged,” he said. “We want a political and diplomatic solution to the problem, without involving the UN Security Council. At least for the time being.”

Phrasing it differently, the president and the minister actually said one and the same thing. Russia retained the hope that Iran would see the light after all and allowed for the possibility of sanctions if it did not. (The US president, too, intended “to advise Iran to fulfill its international commitments”, judging by his words.)

The deadline beyond which sanctions became inevitable seemed to be the only nuance Moscow and Washington disagreed over. Sources who know what they are talking about say that the Americans suggest setting it for the end of December. The Kremlin on the other hand wants its hands tied by no specific dates and insists on playing it by ear.

Alaeddin Borujerdi of the National Security and Foreign Policy Committee of the Iranian parliament said yesterday that Iran was about to develop the capacity to make its own missile defense framework, with or without the Russian S-300 complexes. Borujerdi had threatened Moscow with deterioration of the bilateral relations in case the antiaircraft complexes never materialized, the other day.

These hostile gestures from Tehran will only ease Moscow’s conscience and make it easier for it to vote sanctions against Iran. Should it come to that, the next Russian-American summit will be remembered for the announcement of sanctions against Iran backed by Russia rather than for the long-awaited START follow-on treaty signing.

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