Mike Pompeo delays Russia visit to lobby against Iran deal in Brussels

US secretary of state is expected to meet President Vladimir Putin during his first official visit to Russia

Mike Pompeo, U.S. secretary of state, left, arrives in Brussels, Belgium, on Monday, May 13, 2019. Pompeo made a surprise visit to Brussels as European Union foreign ministers meet to discuss ways to salvage the landmark Iran nuclear accord that Washington has abandoned. Photographer: Geert Vanden Wijngaert/Bloomberg
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The United States and Russia are set to go head to head on the towering geopolitical differences that have strained their relationship as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo embarks on his first trip to Russia since he took office.

Mr Pompeo was due to arrive in Moscow on Monday morning for a two-day visit to Russia that would include meetings with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and President Vladimir Putin in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi.

However, State Department officials announced early on Monday that Mr Pompeo would forgo the Moscow leg of the journey in favour of a last-minute stopover in Brussels, where he was due to discuss the Iran nuclear deal with European diplomats.

US President Donald Trump came to office vowing to scrap the historic accord with Iran, which capped Tehran’s nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief. EU diplomats have worked to keep the deal alive even after Washington began imposing sanctions on Iran.

As well as the Iran nuclear deal, which Russia has voiced strong support for salvaging, State Department officials said Mr Pompeo would discuss a wide range of issues in Sochi, including election meddling, Ukraine, arms control and Venezuela.

Vladimir Frolov, a Russian political columnist, says while the tone of dialogue between Mr Lavrov and Mr Pompeo had softened somewhat since they met last week in Finland, it was hard to see where the two politicians might make headway now.

"On most of the issues on the agenda, the two sides are at loggerheads, with uncompromising positions that have not changed, at least publicly," Mr Frolov told The National.

“The best we could expect in terms of deliverables could be an announcement to launch arms control talks, at least to extend the New START Treaty.”

The US president and Mr Putin earlier this year scrapped a historic arms control pact following months of accusations that Moscow was violating the terms of the agreement.

The collapse of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty – the only Soviet-era arms agreement that had persisted into the Trump era – has raised concerns over the fate of the New START Treaty, an agreement capping nuclear arsenals.

The United States and Russia have been locked in an escalating war of words in recent weeks over the fate of Venezuela’s embattled leader, Nicolas Maduro. The Kremlin has helped buttress his grip on power while the US has backed his rival Juan Guaido in his bid to wrest control of the government.

Mr Frolov said that “Moscow may try to arrange some talks between Guaido and Maduro that would lead to new presidential elections, while the US would promise sanctions relief were that to happen”.

Mr Pompeo’s last-minute change of plans is more likely to rile US officials than it is the Kremlin. He had originally been scheduled to meet with US Embassy staff in Moscow who are working in reduced numbers following reciprocal expulsions after the poisoning of the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in England last year.

The secretary of state was also scheduled to meet representatives of the American business community on Monday, who have been shaken by the recent arrest of veteran US investor Michael Calvey.

Apart from the promise of impasse, Mr Pompeo’s meeting in Sochi on Tuesday may well lead to more meetings. On Monday morning, the deputy head of Russia’s foreign ministry Sergei Ryabkov said US and Russian officials could discuss the possibility of a Trump-Putin summit on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Japan next month.