Moscow is not convinced that Iran plans to weaponize its nuclear program, and has not been shown evidence convincing it otherwise, deputy Russian foreign minister Alexander Saltanov told The Jerusalem Post this week.
Saltanov's comments, made after he delivered a speech at a conference in Jordan sponsored by Ria Novosti, the Russian news and information agency funded by the government, and the Russian Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, came as the US braced for beginning a reassessment of Iran's nuclear program and the sanctions regime policy.
At the same time, Saltanov dismissed the widely held assumption that Russia would not support another heavy round of UN Security Council sanctions against Iran, saying "we never said that sanctions will never happen. We said that we should work through the diplomatic process to the very end, and encourage Iran to get involved in dialogue not only on vague issues - like the nuclear program - but also regarding involvement of Iran in the region to solve problems."
"Iran has a positive potential," he said.
Although he did not say so specifically, Saltanov seemed to referring to Iran's role in the Caucasus and Central Asia, areas of key strategic importance to Russia, where Teheran has been careful to play a constructive role and not export the ideological extremism it has exported to the Middle East. This is something keenly appreciated in Moscow.
Yevgeny Primakov, the former Russian prime minister considered the doyen of Moscow's Middle East experts, said at the conference he did not believe that Iran had made a decision to acquire nuclear weapons, showing just how far the gaps were between Israel and Russia on the issue.
Where Israel, and now the US and most in the West, concur that Iran is after nuclear capability for weapons purposes, the Russians are still debating whether Teheran does indeed want the nuclear capability for weapons or only for civilian needs.
"Russia has no concrete information that Iran is planning to construct a weapon. It may be more like Japan, which has nuclear readiness but does not have a bomb," Primakov said.
"There is no doubt that the Iranian program and lack of clarity about it has caused great nervousness in Israel," he added. "But if Israel attacks Iran it will cause great instability and will only postpone the Iranian program, not end it."
One diplomatic official, asked to explain the chasm in the assessments of Iranian intent that exists between Israel and Russia, said that by denying that Iran has intentions of building a bomb, the Russians push off having to make the difficult decision about how to stop it.
Government sources in Jerusalem, meanwhile, said that there are different schools of thought regarding Iran inside Russia. The sources did not rule out the possibility that the Russians would indeed back another round of sanctions, though perhaps not as stringent as the US and Israel would like to see.
Russian support for a lower degree of sanctions, the sources added, was not insignificant, since it would give legitimacy for the US to band together with other like-minded countries outside of the UN framework and put into place other, tougher measures.
One official said that Iranian self-confidence is currently not very high, and "for the first time you have a situation where the Iranians are facing not only trouble abroad, but also the ground is shaking at home." The international community, he said, has more leverage now than in the past.
The Chinese Xinhua news agency, meanwhile, reported on Thursday that China continues to believe that sanctions were not the right way to go.
"We have consistently insisted that the Iran nuclear issue be properly solved through diplomatic negotiations, and we think sanctions cannot solve the root issues," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said at a regular news briefing.
"The urgency is that all parties should step up diplomatic efforts and maintain and advance the process of dialogue and negotiations, in a bid to seek the proper solution to the Iran nuclear issue in a comprehensive and long-term way," Jiang was quoted as saying.