Russian Foreign Minister Skips Key Iran Meeting to Attend World Cup

By Patrick Goodenough | July 13, 2014 | 8:14pm EDT

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attends the soccer World Cup final at the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on Sunday, July 13, 2014. Others visible in the screenshot from television include Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Screenshot: Public domain)

( – The Obama administration insists that the six powers engaged in nuclear talks with Iran are united. But as a deadline for a final agreement looms, and as Secretary of State John Kerry flew to Vienna to lend urgency to the process Sunday, his Russian counterpart had a more pressing engagement 6,000 miles away – the soccer World Cup final in Brazil.

The stated reason for Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s presence in Brazil was a meeting of the BRICS developing countries bloc. But the BRICS meeting only begins on Tuesday, so Lavrov could have met up with Kerry and his French, German and British counterparts in Vienna on Sunday and still have joined President Vladimir Putin at the summit, had he chosen to do so.

(German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier prioritized the nuclear talks over the sports event – despite that fact that his country was actually playing in the final. Germany beat Argentina 1-0 to take the world title.)

The only other BRICS member that is also involved in the P5+1 talks over Iran’s suspect nuclear program, China, also sent a deputy to Vienna rather than Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

But Lavrov’s absence is most striking, given Russia is the negotiating country with the closest ties to Tehran – and the one most often at odds with West over Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Russia built Iran’s only operating nuclear power reactor, at Bushehr, and is planning to build several more.

The P5+1 comprises the permanent U.N. Security Council members U.S., France, China, Britain and Russia, plus Germany. When they reached an interim agreement with Iran over its nuclear program last November, it only came with the involvement of all seven foreign ministers.

That interim deal, the “Joint Plan of Action” (JPOA), granted Iran limited sanctions relief in exchange for limited curbs on its nuclear program for six months, pending the finalization of a comprehensive final agreement.

With the deadline – July 20 – just one week away, and amid indications of widespread differences between Iran and the P5+1, European Union foreign policy chief Cathy Ashton, who serves as convenor of the talks, invited the foreign ministers to go to Vienna to join their negotiating teams on Sunday.

Secretary of State John Kerry arrives at a hotel where closed-door nuclear talks on Iran are taking place in Vienna, Austria, Sunday, July 13, 2014. (AP Photo/Ronald Zak)

Lavrov’s disinclination to rearrange his schedule and join the others comes at a time when Russia has signaled that it is not necessarily on the same page as its supposed partners.

Its top nuclear negotiator, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, was quoted by state news agency ITAR-Tass on Saturday as saying that the Kremlin’s support for a final deal would depend on Russian national interests.

Although the six nations coordinate their positions, he said, “Russia’s stance is based on the national interests.”

“We should take care of national interests,” Ryabkov said. “This is the duty of any diplomat.”

Alluding to Russia’s stance, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told parliament in Paris last week that a previously “very homogenous” position among the P5+1 appeared to be giving way in recent days to “differences of approach.”

Asked about Ryabkov’s comments, a senior Obama administration official briefing reporters on background in Vienna at the weekend insisted that P5+1 unity remained intact.

“All I can tell you is that we all have national interests; of course we do,” the official said. “But we have all been completely unified in the objective of this negotiation and the key issues that need to be pursued.”

When the JPOA was concluded in November the parties agreed that the July 20 deadline could be put back if all were in agreement to do so. The senior administration official said an extension would be difficult to contemplate unless “significant progress on key issues” had been achieved by next Sunday.

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