Albright presses project for Nato

Western security: Secretary of State sets out agenda for joint military brigade to bind Moscow to alliance
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America's "Iron Lady", Madeleine Albright, the Secretary of State, yesterday met John Major and senior ministers for discussions in London on global security issues. Diplomatic sources said her visit to Britain so soon after being appointed to the United States' senior diplomatic post was of "immense importance".

Ms Albright is due to fly to Moscow tomorrow, and the continuing crisis over Nato expansion and Russia's vociferous opposition to it topped the agenda. But this was overshadowed by reports that Poland, top candidate for Nato membership, had sold T-72 tanks to Iran. The Washington Times cited CIA reports that Poland had sent five shipments of tanks - the most recent last summer. Although the US would not comment on the allegations, thereport will be acutely embarrassing, given US concerns about Iran and Britain's disquiet over the fatwa on Salman Rushdie.

"It's inexcusable for a potential Nato member to be sending militarily significant equipment to rogue regimes that are antithetical to the United States," a US official said.

Ms Albright arrived on Tuesday night, having put forward a radical plan for a joint Nato-Russian military brigade as a way of binding Russia further into the Western security structure. She came determined to press the US view that Nato enlargement, embracing new democracies in eastern Europe, would take place whatever Russia's objections, and take place on time. But there are real problems to be overcome.

Yesterday, Western diplomats broadly welcomed her initiative to create closer links between Nato and Russia by establishing a joint Nato-Russian military brigade, but the Russians dismissed it as posturing. Russia wants a legally binding agreement with Nato as a prelude to enlargement: the US, with Britain in tow, wants an agreement which is not legally binding and which does not allow Russia to veto Nato decision-making. "The proposal helps the Russians see Nato changing to reflect the new security situation," one diplomatic source said, but the Russians were unimpressed.

Ms Albright's first official appointment yesterday was at the Cabinet War Rooms, where Winston Churchill ran Britain's effort in the Second World War. She then met the Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Portillo, and moved to 10 Downing Street, where she met the Prime Minister, John Major, and Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Finally, she met the Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind.

Mr Rifkind has recently been in Hong Kong and he and Ms Albright were expected to share concerns about freedom for its residents after China takes over running the colony in July.

Cyprus, where the Greek Cypriots are engaged in large-scale rearmament, is of particular interest to Ms Albright who was Washington's permanent representative to the UN from 1993 until her appointment as Secretary of State. Diplomatic sources said last night that Britain, the former colonial ruler of the island, "planned to be active" with the US in resolving the 23-year impasse on Cyprus.