Prague: The US and Russia were set to sign a disarmament treaty on Thursday that could herald better bilateral ties and help President Barack Obama raise pressure on countries seeking to develop nuclear weapons.
White House officials told reporters on Obama’s flight to Prague that tougher sanctions against Iran’s disputed nuclear programme would be high on the agenda of talks between the US leader and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev before the signing.
“The Russians are already committed to holding Iran accountable through the multilateral sanctions regime,” deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said.
The White House said the two men would also discuss the situation in Kyrgyzstan, where opposition protesters forced out President Kurmanbek Bakiyev on Wednesday in a poor Central Asian state where both Washington and Moscow have military bases.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin recognised the interium government formed by opposition leader Roza Otunbayeva on Thursday after speaking to her by telephone, his spokesman said. There was no immediate word on whether Washington would follow suit.
Signing of the START II treaty, which will cut arsenals held by the former Cold War foes by about one-third, comes on the heels of a US policy review narrowing the scope for using nuclear weapons and builds momentum for an 12-13 April nuclear security summit in Washington.
Obama landed in Prague early on Thursday to Medvedev for the signing ceremony at the medieval Prague Castle, where the U.S. president set out his goal a year ago to work towards a world without nuclear weapons.
Medvedev said on arrival on Wednesday that the treaty could play a considerable role in shaping disarmament in the future.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Obama hoped and expected the US Senate would ratify the treaty this year, before mid-term elections may change the composition of the upper house of Congress, controlled by the Democrats.
Messsage on Iran
Gibbs said he did expect Obama and Medvedev to make pronouncements on the specifics of Iran sanctions. But analysts expect him to use the signing to build pressure on Tehran, along with the nuclear summit in Washington and a meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao next week.
Steven Pifer, an arms control expert at the Brookings Institution, said the pact with Russia would give the US delegation more credibility at the non-proliferation conference.
“If the United States and Russia were to show up with no agreement and between the two of them controlling 95% of the weapons, it’s pretty easy for the non-nuclear states to say, ‘well you’re not doing your part, why should we?´,” Pifer said.
Obama’s new nuclear strategy document unveiled this week forswears the use of atomic weapons against non-nuclear countries, a break with a George W. Bush-era threat of nuclear retaliation in the event of a biological or chemical attack.
The assurance applies only to countries in compliance with the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, so Iran and North Korea would not receive that commitment.
Washington and Moscow have plenty of differences on issues ranging from Iran to missile defence.
On Tuesday, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov repeated Moscow’s threat to withdraw from the START II treaty if US plans for missile defence threatened Russia.
Obama has put a priority on trying to “reset” relations with Moscow that hit a post-Cold War low during Russia’s 2008 war with Georgia, and the treaty could help that.
The successor to the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty would limit operationally deployed nuclear warheads to 1,550, down nearly two-thirds from START I.
Later on Thursday, Obama will dine with 11 heads of state from central and eastern Europe. Czech diplomats said the meeting was designed to reassure former Soviet bloc countries that resetting relations with Russia would not diminish U.S. interests in the region.