Russia and China are blocking U.S. and European efforts to slap new sanctions on Iran over its disputed nuclear program.
But it is objections in particular from Moscow, angered by Washington's criticism of its invasion of Georgia, that have forced cancellation of high-level talks on Iran that were scheduled to be held here this week on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, officials said.
A senior American diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the Bush administration's internal thinking on Russia and Iran, said "there clearly is spillover of the difficulties created by the Georgia crisis, difficulties with Russian behavior that we have to work through."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will meet face to face Wednesday for the first time since Russia's August invasion of Georgia in what is expected to be a tense session covering multiple issues, including Iran, North Korea, Georgia, Ukraine, NATO expansion and the Middle East.
The clearest manifestation of the Georgia spillover is Russia's role in the six-nation effort to get Iran to stop enriching uranium that could fuel an atomic bomb in exchange for an incentives package it was offered by the group earlier this year.
The group includes the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — and Germany. Russian and Chinese envoys last week prevented a consensus from being reached on new sanctions, the diplomat said.
The foreign ministers of the six countries were to have met in New York on Thursday to continue those discussions but on Tuesday, Russia's Foreign Ministry said it saw no reason for such a gathering, which the U.S. and the Europeans believe is key to showing a unified front.
"We do not see any sort of 'fire' that requires us to toss everything aside and meet to discuss Iran's nuclear program in the middle of a packed week at the United Nations General Assembly," Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko said in a statement.
Russia: 'More urgent issues'
"On the contrary, there are more urgent questions — for example, the situation in Afghanistan and along the Afghan-Pakistan border — but our Western partners for some reason aren't rushing to discuss these," he said.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said later that the ministerial meeting would not happen and maintained that the United States agreed with the cancellation.
"We agree with them (the Russians) that the time is not right to have a meeting at the ministerial level," he told reporters. "There is still work to be done at (a lower) level."
Iran is already under three sets of U.N. Security Council sanctions that were passed after strong objections from China and Russia were overcome.
The U.S. and Europe believe it is now urgent to pass a fourth set, especially since Iran continues to defy demands to cooperate with the U.N.'s atomic watchdog.
If Russia successfully stops the foreign ministers meeting from happening, it is not clear how much the U.S. and Europeans will be able to accomplish on sanctions, short of imposing their own bilateral penalties on Iran.
The six countries, along with the European Union, have offered Iran incentives to halt its uranium enrichment and reprocessing, activities that can produce fuel for atomic weapons. Tehran has thus far rejected the package, opening the door to more sanctions.
Iran, which insists its nuclear program is designed to produce atomic power and not weapons, has been unmoved despite signs that its economy has been hit hard.
In a speech to the United Nations on Tuesday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad accused "a few bullying powers" of trying to stop his country's legal right to a peaceful nuclear energy program.