MOSCOW – Two senior Russian officials indicated Tuesday that Moscow could back a draft U.N. Security Council resolution imposing sanctions on Iran, in an apparent sign of the Islamic Republic's growing isolation over its nuclear program.
The comments came after months of Russian opposition to sanctions and suggested that Moscow could reluctantly support punishment as a lever of influence over a stubborn Iran. Just last Thursday, the foreign minister said Moscow was opposed to the resolution being drafted by European powers.
On Tuesday, Yuri Volkov, a deputy speaker of the lower house of parliament, said Russia "will apparently have to join a new resolution on Iran proposed by Britain, Germany and France that envisages limited economic sanctions."
And Igor Ivanov, the head of Russia's presidential Security Council, made comments later that also suggested Moscow could support the draft European resolution.
"Resolutions and sanctions are not a goal in themselves. They are just one of the elements," Ivanov said at a news conference. "And if such a resolution is worked out, it will be first of all be one of the elements aimed at assisting political negotiations, because only as a result of political negotiations and dialogue can a concrete result be achieved."
Russia and China, both veto-wielding Security Council members with strong commercial ties to Tehran, have consistently been reluctant to support sanctions. But, separately from the Russian comments, China issued muted criticism of Iran on Tuesday over its standoff with the Security Council.
Asked about the Iranian president's declaration that Tehran would oppose any sanctions, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said "the relevant parties should not take any measures that may lead to the escalation of the situation."
China has recently taken a stronger role in nuclear negotiations more generally, and on Tuesday the U.S. and Chinese governments announced jointly that North Korea had agreed to rejoin six-nation nuclear disarmament talks.
Volkov, the Russian lawmaker, has played a low-key role in the past and made no statements on global politics, although he is in charge of inter-parliamentary contacts with Iran. Like most members of the Duma, he belongs to the Kremlin-controlled United Russia faction.
It was unclear whether Volkov has any access to Kremlin decision-making, but Ivanov is a former foreign minister amd longtime diplomatic insider whose security advisory body answers to President Vladimir Putin.
"Any decision in the Security Council must be aimed not at punishing Iran but at achieving our goals through political means," Ivanov said. The goal, he said, is to preserve Iran's right to peaceful nuclear energy while ensuring it does not develop nuclear weapons.
Ivanov's comments suggested that Russia — which is wary of angering Iran by appearing to join the West in calls for punishment and has warned that harsh measures could scuttle chances for a resolution of the crisis — could cast support for limited sanctions as a path toward further talks.
"Russia continues to call for a political settlement," he said.
Volkov said "the Iranian leadership's refusal to freeze uranium enrichment activities and engage in a constructive dialogue with leading global powers leaves no chance for a quick diplomatic solution of the Iranian nuclear problem."
At the same time, he said Russia would continue efforts to encourage talks between Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana "so that Iran isn't driven into a corner." He also repeated Russia's firm opposition to any decisions that could lead to the use of military force against Iran.
Moscow has been frustrated in its efforts to persuade Tehran to halt enrichment — including by offering to enrich uranium on Russian soil for a peaceful Iranian nuclear program. But Russian officials have repeatedly warned that harsh punishment could make Iran even more recalcitrant and scuttle the chances for a negotiated solution to the crisis.