(photo credit: Associated Press)
Even as Russia's foreign minister said Wednesday it will not support "excessive" sanctions against its economic partner Iran, Western diplomatic officials recently in Moscow said it was clear the Russians were not happy with Iranian failure to stop uranium enrichment.
This unhappiness, the officials said, was reflected in what European and US officials said was Moscow's decision not to ship fuel to Iran's nuclear plant at Bushehr until Teheran freezes its uranium enrichment program, as demanded by the UN Security Council.
The UN Security Council on Wednesday began discussing a draft-resolution for further sanctions against Iran. Germany and the five veto-wielding permanent council nations - the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France - agreed on the modest package of new sanctions last week.
The proposed new sanctions in the draft resolution would ban Iranian arms exports and freeze the assets of 28 additional individuals and organizations involved in the country's nuclear and missile programs - about a third linked to Iran's Revolutionary Guard. The package also calls for voluntary restrictions on travel by the individuals subject to sanctions, on arms sales to Iran, and on new financial assistance or loans to the Iranian government.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said he would travel to the United Nations in New York if the Security Council decided to vote on sanctions. Last week the US State Department said it would approve any visa request from Ahmadinejad.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Moscow "will not support excessive sanctions against Iran," and added that the draft resolution has been softened at Moscow's behest.
Lavrov also denied the claims that Moscow had told Iran it would not deliver nuclear fuel for Bushehr.
"There is no link whatsoever between the UN resolution ... and the implementation of the Bushehr project," he told lawmakers in the lower parliament house.
Israeli officials, meanwhile, said that both the proposed new UN sanctions and the recent Russian steps were positive signs.
"It is an encouraging sign when a major player puts strategic issues before economic interests," a senior government official said in reference to Russia. He said that the same could be applied to the Europeans, who have begun implementing the sanctions called for by US Security Council Resolution 1737, as well as some parallel economic steps led by the US aimed at the Iranian economy.
The official, however, would not say whether he believed this would change Iran's decision regarding its nuclear program. "It's hard to gauge Iranian behavior," the official said.
The official enumerated four main tracks that he said are moving forward and aimed at convincing Teheran that its nuclear program is not in its own interests: The sanctions in the UN Security Council; the supplemental financial measures led by the Americans and being increasingly supported by European governments and financial institutions; the enactment of uniform regulations throughout the EU making implementation of sanctions possible; and America's deterrent efforts in the Gulf.
The official said that each of these tracks had a degree of impact on Teheran, and that the recent Russian actions added another point of pressure.
Nevertheless, Iran's top leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned on Wednesday that his country would pursue nuclear activities outside international regulations if the UN Security Council insists it stop uranium enrichment.
"Until today, what we have done has been in accordance with international regulations," Khamenei said. "But if they take illegal actions, we too can take illegal actions and will do so." Khamenei did not elaborate what "illegal actions" could be pursued by Teheran as it faces new sanctions by the UN body over its refusal to halt enrichment which the West fears is used for arms making.
Iran's top leader also issued a stark warning to the United States, saying Iran would "use all its capacities to strike" its enemies if his country is attacked.
"If they want to treat us with threats and enforcement of coercion and violence, undoubtedly they must know that the Iranian nation and authorities will use all their capacities to strike enemies that attack," Khamenei told the nation in an address marking the first day of Nowruz, or the Persian New Year.
Khamenei said sanctions against Iran had not worked in the past and more could instead have the opposite effect on a nation that wants to benefit from nuclear power because "one day oil will dry up."
"We achieved nuclear (technology) under sanctions. Sanctions may even, under circumstances, come to our benefit since they create more motivation for us," he added.