PRAGUE (Reuters) - The United States and Russia pressed Iran on Thursday to renounce its nuclear ambitions or face new sanctions as they signed a landmark strategic nuclear disarmament treaty, but differences flared over Kyrgyzstan.
Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev signed the pact at a ceremony in Prague Castle after talks that centered on possible extra sanctions over Iran’s atomic program, which the West believes is aimed at making bombs.
But their attempt to display a united front faltered over Kyrgyzstan, with a senior Russian official saying Moscow would urge the new leaders who toppled President Kurmanbek Bakiyev on Wednesday to shut a strategic U.S. air base in the former Soviet central Asian republic.
That would be a severe blow to Washington, which has used the Manas base to supply U.S.-led NATO forces fighting Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan since losing similar facilities in Uzbekistan, apparently due to pressure from Moscow.
The arms treaty will cut strategic nuclear arsenals deployed by the former Cold War foes by 30 percent within seven years, but leave each with enough to destroy the other.
Obama said the agreement had “ended the drift” in relations between Moscow and Washington and sent a strong signal that the two powers that together possess 90 percent of all atomic weapons were taking their disarmament obligations seriously.
“We are working together at the United Nations Security Council to pass strong sanctions on Iran and we will not tolerate actions that flout the NPT,” he said, referring to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
“My expectation is that we are going to be able to secure strong, tough sanctions on Iran this spring.”
But Medvedev was more cautious, saying he had presented the U.S. president with a list of what was acceptable or not.
The Russian leader said he regretted Tehran had not reacted to constructive proposals on its nuclear program and the Security Council might have to take further sanctions, but they should be “smart” and not bring disaster on the Iranian people.
“Today we had a very open, frank and straightforward discussion of what can be done and cannot be done,” he said.
Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov declined to detail the list but told reporters a total embargo on deliveries of refined oil products to Iran was unacceptable as it would cause a “huge shock for the whole society and the whole population.”
White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said the leaders had discussed the issue of energy sanctions and the idea was “not off the table.”
Western powers fear Iran may be trying to develop nuclear weapons but Tehran says its program is entirely peaceful.
The situation in Kyrgyzstan, where opposition protesters forced out Bakiyev on Wednesday, thrust its way on to the agenda as both Washington and Moscow have military bases there.
Senior White House aide Michael McFaul said Obama and Medvedev talked about the possibility of issuing a joint statement, but no such initiative was forthcoming.
Instead, a senior Russian official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told reporters afterwards: “In Kyrgyzstan, there should be only one base — Russian.”
He said Bakiyev had failed to fulfill a promise to close the U.S. base. McFaul said that the two leaders had not discussed the issue of closing the U.S. air base.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin effectively recognized the interim Kyrgyz government formed by opposition leader Roza Otunbayeva on Thursday, speaking to her by telephone, his spokesman said. But the U.S. official said it was unclear who was running Kyrgyzstan, although he added Washington did not see the upheaval as a Russian-sponsored or anti-American coup.
Czech President Vaclav Klaus said the uncertain situation in Kyrgyzstan dominated a lunch he hosted for the two leaders, and each left the room at one point to take a call on the crisis.
Obama reaffirmed his long-term goal to work toward a world without nuclear arms and said Medvedev would visit the United States later this year to discuss further cooperation, including withdrawing short-range tactical nuclear weapons.
The U.S. leader this week announced a shift in U.S. nuclear doctrine, pledging never to use atomic weapons against non-nuclear states, as he sought to build momentum for an April 12-13 nuclear security summit in Washington.
Analysts said the signing would help Obama to build pressure on Tehran, along with a 47-nation nuclear summit in Washington and a meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao next week.
The two leaders tried to highlight common ground, including on economic cooperation. However, they did not mention Russia’s stalled bid to join the World Trade Organization.
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.
Additional reporting by Jana Mlcochova and Denis Dyomkin in Prague and Jon Boyle in London; writing by Paul Taylor; editing by Elizabeth Fullerton