Russia Says Sanctions Against Iran Are Unlikely

Posted in Russia , Iran | 12-Sep-09 | Author: Clifford Levy| Source: New York Times

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, pictured during a speech to university students in Moscow on September 1, 2009.

MOSCOW - Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov on Thursday all but ruled out imposing new sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program, brushing aside growing Western concerns that Iran had made significant progress in recent months in a bid for nuclear weapons.

Mr. Lavrov said he believed that a new set of proposals that Iran gave to European nations on Wednesday offered a viable basis for negotiations to end the dispute. He said he did not believe that the United Nations Security Council would approve new sanctions against Iran, which could ban Iran from exporting oil or importing gasoline.

"Based on a brief review of the Iranian papers, my impression is there is something there to use," Mr. Lavrov said at a gathering of experts on Russia. "The most important thing is Iran is ready for a comprehensive discussion of the situation, what positive role it can play in Iraq, Afghanistan and the region."

Mr. Lavrov's comments underscored the challenge facing the Obama administration as it plans its next move in the United States' longstanding struggle to prevent Iran from producing nuclear weapons.

Russia is a permanent member of the Security Council, allowing it to veto any sanctions resolution, and it has close economic and diplomatic ties to Iran.

Iran says its program to enrich uranium is aimed at producing electricity, and it has refused to halt the process, which can have civilian and military purposes.

On Thursday, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran's ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations' nuclear watchdog, said Iran would not negotiate further with the major powers about its nuclear program, Iranian news services reported.

A five-page letter that Iran delivered to the European powers, and sent to Washington via the Swiss on Wednesday, is titled a "Package of Proposals by the Islamic Republic of Iran for Comprehensive and Constructive Negotiations." But it is devoid of specifics, and never mentions Iran's nuclear program.

Instead, the letter, which was published Thursday on the Web site of, an investigative journalism group, refers in the vaguest terms to "creating a world filled with spirituality, friendship, prosperity, wellness and security."

It hews closely to a proposal issued by Iran last year. Among the topics it proposes to discuss is global disarmament, which has been interpreted in Washington as suggesting that Iran wants to link any discussion of the fate of its nuclear program with talks about the arsenals of the United States and Israel, among others.

On Wednesday the American ambassador to the atomic energy agency, Glyn Davies, declared that Iran had reached "possible breakout capacity" - the ability to acquire enough fuel and expertise to complete building a nuclear weapon relatively quickly - if it decided to enrich its uranium to bomb-grade.

President Obama has sought to take a less adversarial stance toward Iran's nuclear program than President George W. Bush did. But with seemingly little to show for it, Mr. Obama may now try to move more aggressively.

Obtaining the Kremlin's backing is one of his biggest hurdles in doing so, and when Mr. Obama was in Moscow in July, he spoke at length with President Dmitri A. Medvedev about the Iranian nuclear program.

While the tone of the talks may have appeared promising, the Russian side now seems to be positioning itself as something of an arbiter in the dispute between Iran and the West.

"Some of the sanctions under discussion, including oil and oil products, are not a mechanism to force Iran to cooperate," Mr. Lavrov said Thursday at a meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club, an annual meeting of Russia experts. "They are a step to a full-blown blockade, and I do not think they would be supported at the U.N. Security Council."

Mr. Lavrov added, "Iran is a partner that has never harmed Russia in any way."

Cliff Kupchan, a director at the Eurasia Group, a global risk-consulting firm based in New York, was at the meeting and questioned Mr. Lavrov about Iran.

"They derive a lot of influence and prestige by being the point man on Iran," Mr. Kupchan said of the Russian officials in an interview. "I think that they are making clear that they are in the middle of the game. They are stating that the road to Tehran goes through Moscow."

Israel has become increasingly anxious about Iran's possible effort to secure both nuclear and conventional weapons, and reports surfaced in Jerusalem this week that the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, made a secret visit to Moscow on Monday to lobby the Kremlin to spurn Iran's requests.

Mr. Netanyahu's aides have not officially confirmed the trip, and when asked about it on Thursday, Mr. Lavrov referred questions to the Israeli side.

Mr. Lavrov offered a more categorical denial to unconfirmed reports that a cargo ship that was hijacked off the coast of Europe had been smuggling a sophisticated Russian air-defense system to Iran detected by Israel.

Israel has repeatedly sought assurances from Russia that it will not deliver the system, the S-300, to Iran.

The cargo ship disappeared under mysterious circumstances in late July, and the reluctance of the Russian authorities to explain exactly what happened has spawned a raft of rumors. The ship was located in mid-August with its crew safe, and the alleged hijackers were arrested.

David E. Sanger contributed reporting from Washington.