Russia dug in its heels Friday and indicated it would continue to resist U.S. calls to isolate Iran, saying the nuclear crisis must be solved under the aegis of the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency.
"The search for a solution must follow the route of diplomacy, and our position is that the instrument for resolving this problem, as before, must remain the IAEA, as we don't have another international agency that has such authority and competence in the nonproliferation area," Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Kislyak told a Moscow security conference.
Kislyak's comments reflected Russia's continued insistence that the Iran issue be handled first and foremost by the International Atomic Energy Agency, which does not have the authority to impose sanctions. They came on a day when Russian officials seemed at pains to emphasize their continued differences with the United States on how to handle the nuclear crisis.
"Our advice to our Iranian colleagues and friends is to complete work with the IAEA and to calmly continue its nuclear energy program ... and on this path we are ready to provide assistance to Iran," Kislyak said.
The U.S. is pushing strongly for sanctions because of Iran's refusal to suspend its uranium enrichment program, which Washington believes is tied to a secret weapons program.
"One can speak of sanctions only after the appearance of concrete facts proving that Iran is not engaged exclusively in peaceful nuclear activities," the ITAR-Tass news agency quoted Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin as saying.
Nikolai Spassky, deputy head of the Kremlin Security Council, put it even more bluntly.
"There is no such issue (of sanctions) for us," he was quoted as saying by the RIA-Novosti news agency. "We are not discussing it."
Iran's envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency said, meanwhile, that Tehran was prepared to cooperate.
"We have always been and will be prepared to remove any ambiguity about our nuclear activities and to prove that they are exclusively for peaceful purposes and will remain exclusively for peaceful purposes," Ali Asghar Soltanieh said.
He warned that "any engagement by the U.N. Security Council would make the situation deteriorate."
"We advise all to let the IAEA do its job and we are determined to continue full cooperation with the IAEA," Soltanieh said.
Other countries were unmoved.
"We've heard all this before," one European official said on condition of anonymity. "We'll await (IAEA chief Mohamed) ElBaradei's report. ... We'll take our judgment then on what the next move is."
Russian officials have said they were awaiting ElBaradei's April 28 report before deciding Moscow's position on further steps to resolve the Iran crisis.
Still, Moscow seems determined to move forward with its planned joint venture with Iran to enrich uranium on Russian territory — despite Tehran's cool reaction to the idea. Kislyak said that Moscow would press President Vladimir Putin's proposal to set up multilateral centers for nuclear technology at this summer's Group of Eight summit in St. Petersburg.
The United States and Britain have said that if Iran does not comply with the U.N. Security Council's April 28 deadline to stop enrichment, they will seek a resolution that would make the demand compulsory.
On Thursday, Moscow rejected a U.S. call to end cooperation in constructing the US$800 million (euro648 million) Bushehr nuclear power plant in southern Iran.
Kamynin said that the plant had no relation to Iran's work in uranium enrichment.
The United States has also called on others to stop all arms exports to Iran, but Spassky said Friday that "there are no circumstances that would obstruct fulfillment of our obligations in military-technical cooperation with Iran," ITAR-Tass reported.
"Military-technical cooperation" is a euphemism for arms shipments.
"This goes for all the obligations we have made, including the commitment to provide Iran with Tor-M1 air-defense systems," Spassky was quoted as saying.
Russia's Defense Ministry has said Moscow would supply 29 sophisticated Tor-M1 air defense missile systems to Iran under a contract worth about $700 million, according to Russian media reports.