Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin says talking about sanctions against Iran could ruin negotiations with Teheran regarding its nuclear program.
Putin said the threat of sanctions is unneeded at this point because it could scare the Iranians, scuttling chances that talks with global powers could end Tehran's recalcitrance.
"If we speak about some kind of sanctions now, before we take concrete steps, we will fail to create favorable conditions for negotiations. That is why we consider such talk premature,"
Putin told reporters in China.
"We believe that we should treat this issue with caution, and there is no need to scare the Iranians," he said.
The remarks, which came while US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was visiting Russia, were a fresh rebuke to US efforts to secure solidarity from Russia in firmly warning Iran of the consequences it could face if it refuses to halt uranium enrichment and come clean about its nuclear activities.
Russia and China, veto-wielding permanent UN Security Council members, have opposed stronger sanctions against Iran, which the US and allies say is seeking to develop nuclear weapons.
Speaking to reporters shortly returning home from Beijing, Putin sounded less cooperative on Iran than President Dmitry Medvedev, who said after a meeting with Obama in New York last month that sanctions are sometimes inevitable.
Ever since, Russian officials have been backtracking from that remark, at least in public, while insisting they are not.
They have by no means ruled out sanctions. But Medvedev did not mention the word at a news conference in Pittsburgh two days later, and now both Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Putin have emphasized that the focus, for the time being, must be on diplomacy.
Putin said there was no contradiction between his statements on the issue and those of Medvedev, who pleased the US by saying last month that sanctions can sometimes be unavoidable - the clearest suggestion yet that the Kremlin would likely support tougher sanctions if the current diplomatic efforts fail.
A top Russian security official, however, said Moscow reserves the right to conduct preemptive nuclear strikes to safeguard the country against aggression on both a large and a local scale, according to a newspaper interview published Wednesday.
Presidential Security Council chief Nikolai Patrushev also singled out the US and NATO, saying Moscow's Cold War foes still pose potential threats to Russia despite what he called a global trend toward local conflicts.
The interview appeared in the daily Izvestia during Clinton's visit to Moscow, as US and Russian negotiators try to hammer out a nuclear arms reduction treaty by December. It also came amid grumbling in Moscow over US moves to modify plans for a missile shield near Russia's borders rather than ditch the idea outright.
Patrushev said a sweeping document on military policy including a passage on preventative nuclear force will be handed to Medvedev by the end of the year, according to Izvestia.
Officials are examining "a variety of possibilities for using nuclear force, depending on the situation and the intentions of the possible opponent," Patrushev was quoted as saying. "In situations critical to national security, options including a preventative nuclear strike on the aggressor are not excluded."
The proposed doctrine would allow for the use of nuclear weapons "to repel an aggression with the use of conventional weapons not only in a large-scale but also in a regional and even local war," Patrushev was quoted as saying. He said a government analysis of the threat of conflict in the world showed "a shift from large-scale conflicts to local wars and armed conflicts."
"However, earlier military dangers and threats for our country have not lost significance," he was quoted as saying. "Activity on receiving new members into NATO is not ceasing. The military activity of the bloc is being stepped up. US strategic forces are conducting intensive training on using strategic nuclear weapons."
Russian military analysts said the hawkish former domestic intelligence chief's remarks were mostly muscle-flexing for show, because what he revealed about the proposed new doctrine suggests it differs little from the current one.
One independent analyst, Alexander Golts, said current policy already allows for a nuclear strike to repel an aggression of any sort.
Another, Pavel Felgenhauer, said it effectively allows for a pre-emptive strike because the type of aggression that would warrant such a strike is not clearly defined.
Russian NATO envoy Dmitry Rogozin argued the proposed doctrine does not contradict arms reduction efforts. "We are moving toward a reduction in nuclear arsenals," he told Ekho Moskvy radio.
Still, Patrushev's focus on local conflicts could rattle Georgia, the small neighbor that Russia routed in a five-day conventional war with Russia last year.
Analysts also said his description of the proposed policy shows Russia's growing reliance on nuclear arms as its conventional arsenal decays and unpopular military reforms stall.
Observers say the war with Georgia exposed frailties in Russia's military, adding urgency to planned reforms.
In a symptomatic setback, a scheduled test launch of the new Bulava intercontinental ballistic missile - which has failed in seven of its 11 test launches so far - was postponed, the state-run RIA Novosti news agency reported. The Bulava has been billed as the future of Russia's nuclear arsenal.
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