Iran offered Saturday to talk with the West about its disputed nuclear program days before the U.S. and its partners are expected to circulate a draft resolution providing for limited sanctions against Tehran.
But prospects for any U.N. action dimmed as Russia declared it will not support measures to punish Iran or "promote ideas of regime change there."
"Any measures of influence should encourage creating conditions for talks," Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in an interview with Kuwait's news agency.
A draft resolution on Iran is expected to be introduced in the U.N. Security Council within days, and diplomats have said they would seek limited sanctions against Tehran for refusing to suspend uranium enrichment.
"We won't be able to support and will oppose any attempts to use the Security Council to punish Iran or use Iran's program in order to promote the ideas of regime change there," Lavrov said in the interview, which was posted Saturday on the Russian Foreign Ministry's Web site.
Russia — along with the U.S., France, China and Britain — has veto power on the 15-nation Security Council and could block sanctions.
French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie also indicated that support for sanctions was showing signs of ebbing, saying Friday that pressure could be lifted if Iran takes steps toward resolving questions over its nuclear program.
Lavrov's Iranian counterpart, Manouchehr Mottaki, offered to hold discussions with the West during which his government would explain its nuclear ambitions.
"Dialogue is the best way to reach an understanding," Mottaki said. "We are ready to hold talks about the reason for enrichment."
Uranium enrichment is a key process that can produce either fuel for a nuclear reactor or the material for a warhead. Tehran says its uranium enrichment program aims only to generate electricity, while the United States and others suspect it's a cover for building atomic weapons.
Mottaki did not suggest a time or venue for the discussions, and Western capitals issued no response. The offer could complicate the U.S.-led drive for sanctions against Iran, but it was unlikely to halt it.
Still, Motakki's invitation gave the Security Council — already saddled with the issue of North Korea's more-advanced nuclear program — a possible out.
North Korea joined the elite club of nuclear-armed nations on Oct. 9, with its underground nuclear test. The Security Council imposed sanctions on Pyongyang days later.
That rebuke followed only a few days of debate. The council has been considering Iran's case since February.
Lavrov also prodded the U.S. on that front Saturday, urging Washington and Pyongyang to settle bilateral problems to pave the way for the resumption of six-way talks on North Korea's nuclear program.
On Iran, he said international efforts should focus on forcing Tehran to cooperate more closely with the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog.
"There is no proof that Iran is pursuing a military nuclear program. There are suspicions and questions that have not yet been answered," Lavrov said.
Russia is constructing Iran's first nuclear reactor, at a power plant in Bushehr. The United States has long warned the reactor could aid Iran in developing nuclear weapons.
Russia is to begin sending fuel to the plant by March. But depleted fuel rods from the plant are to be returned to Russia — an arrangement aimed at preventing Iran from potentially extracting plutonium from them.
Lavrov met with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Moscow Saturday, but neither official commented on the results of the talks, in which the Iranian nuclear controversy was certain to be a key issue.
France, co-sponsor of a possible resolution against Iran, indicated Friday it might be willing to suspend the drive for sanctions if Iran takes steps toward resolving questions over its nuclear program.
"If Iran does display good will, France and France's partners are ready to suspend the procedure in front of the Security Council. The only condition is that there are indeed steps forward," Alliot-Marie said.
Mottaki's comments at a news conference appeared aimed at taking advantage of France's position as one of the key nations spearheading efforts to force Iran to roll back its nuclear program.
"The time for language of force is over. The West has tested threats in our region. We invite them to sincerely return to talks," he said.
On Friday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called the U.N. Security Council and its decisions "illegitimate," saying the world body was being used as a political tool by Iran's enemies — the United States and Britain.