Russia is steadfastly opposed to a US-led assault on Iraq, insisting that United Nations inspectors and political negotiation remain the solution. But on the eve of Tony Blair's arrival in Moscow, Russian officials suggested for the first time that President Vladimir Putin could be open to the possibility of a new UN Security Council resolution, if there was no automatic trigger for military action and Russia's economic interests were taken fully into account.
In remarks clearly approved at the highest level, President Putin's spokesman, Sergei Yastrzhemsky, said Iraq would be a "key issue" in the talks with the Prime Minister, and that Russia hoped Mr Blair's "privileged position with the White House will produce some answers" about US intentions.
Conceding that initial objections had been dropped to a new UN Security Council resolution, he said Russia could accept a "consensus" resolution to "increase pressure on Baghdad and strengthen the international inspection regime". But he also made clear Russia harboured deep suspicion of Washington's motives. "We have no evidence that the goal of a war against Iraq is not to destabilise the international oil market," he said.
Before the talks today and tomorrow, Mr Blair insisted the objections to a new UN resolution could be overcome, saying both countries had a common interest in removing chemical, biological and "potentially nuclear" weapons from Iraq. Mr Yastrzhemsky said Russia's position on Iraq could not be detached from its economic interests there. He warned that Russia's social stability could be jeopardised by a sharp fall in oil prices. Moscow's interests in Iraq include oil concessions which Russia wanted to develop and machine-building contracts, under which Baghdad owed Russia between $8bn and $10bn.
Mr Blair admitted Russia had "concerns of a commercial and financial nature" over Iraq, but added: "I think the main preoccupation of Russia ... has been to make sure that whatever takes place, takes place with the fullest support of the international community, and that's our concern as well."
He told the BBC World Service there was "no truth" in suggestions that Britain could turn a blind eye to Russian conduct in Chechnya in return for Moscow's support for US and British-led action in Iraq. But he added: "People should never forget Russia itself has been the victim of terrorism – terrorism coming from extremists operating out of Chechnya – and that the territorial integrity of Russia should be respected."
In Tehran, Jack Straw was told that the focus by Washington and London on a possible war on Saddam Hussein had meant neglect of the Israel-Palestinian problem, and led to a "deep hatred" of America. Iran rejected the Foreign Secretary's attempts to seek support for a tough UN resolution.