Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday held talks with Iran's top nuclear negotiator - a move that signaled a serious Kremlin effort to force Iran to freeze its uranium enrichment program.
Putin met with Ali Larijani at his country residence outside Moscow, the Kremlin press office said in a statement. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and presidential Security Council secretary Igor Ivanov also were taking part in the talks, it said.
After a first round of meetings with Lavrov and Ivanov on Friday, Larijani said Teheran would push ahead with its controversial nuclear program, and suggested it could break off ties with the UN nuclear watchdog if the world inflicts punishments proposed by European nations.
In a familiar mix of threats and offers, Larijani said Iran wanted negotiations to ease the mounting standoff over fears it is seeking nuclear weapons, but that it would not abandon what he insisted was a peaceful nuclear energy program.
Moscow is seeking to revive its proposal to move Iran's uranium enrichment work to Russian soil to assuage international concerns that Iran could use the process to develop weapons. Larijani said Friday that the proposal remains on the table, but there was no evidence of movement toward Iranian acceptance.
"We want to use our rights under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and in this context there will be no retreat, but we are ready for negotiations," Larijani said Friday. He said Iran was prepared to renew negotiations with the European Union's top diplomat, Javier Solana, or to hold talks "in any other format," according to Russian news agencies.
The European draft resolution that would impose UN sanctions on Iran "will not promote a political solution of the problem," Larijani said. "Those who support adopting the resolution want to aggravate the problems of the region."
The European draft resolution would order all countries to ban the supply of material and technology that could contribute to Iran's nuclear and missile programs, measures that could damage Russia's nuclear and arms-industry ties with Teheran.
With Russia calling for major changes that would water down the proposed sanctions, the visit appeared to highlight divisions among the five permanent Security Council members over how to deal with Iran's refusal to halt its enrichment program.
In comments that dovetailed with Russia's warnings that too much pressure could deepen Iran's defiance, Larijani warned that Teheran would reconsider its ties with the International Atomic Energy Agency if the council adopted the European proposal.
"We will reconsider relations with the IAEA if the United Nations passes the ... resolution ignoring Russia's amendments," Russian news agencies quoted him as saying. Iran has repeatedly threatened to respond to sanctions by blocking IAEA inspections of its nuclear facilities.
While they recently agreed in principle on sanctions, both Russia and China have continued to publicly push for dialogue instead of UN punishment, despite the collapse last month of a European Union attempt to entice Iran into talks. Both countries have major commercial ties with Iran and can veto UN Security Council resolutions as permanent members.