Russia won’t back ‘crippling sanctions’

Israel and the US will hold a one-day, high-level strategic dialogue on Thursday expected to focus on sanctions against Iran, a day after Russia announced it opposes “paralyzing” sanctions aimed at the Islamic Republic’s energy sector.

A week after Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu returned from Moscow, where he publicly called for “crippling sanctions” and “sanctions with teeth” against Iranian energy exports and imports, Oleg Rozhkov, the deputy head of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s security and disarmament department, said that Moscow would not back “crippling or paralyzing” sanctions that could lead to the “political or economic or financial isolation” of Iran.

According to Reuters, Rozhkov – when asked by a reporter what sanctions Russia might support – replied, “Those that are directed at resolving nonproliferation questions linked to Iran’s nuclear program.

“What relation to nonproliferation is there in forbidding banking activities with Iran?” he asked. “This is a financial blockade. And oil and gas. These sanctions are aimed only at paralyzing the country and paralyzing the regime.”

Despite these comments, the Israeli and US teams on Thursday are expected to concentrate on the issue of sanctions to halt Iran’s nuclear program. A possible military strike is not expected to be discussed, since Washington has made clear that while it might need to be discussed in the future, the military option is not now on the agenda.

There is currently no known discussion between Israel and the US, at any level, about military action, even though over the years both countries have said that it should not be taken off the table.

In Washington, meanwhile, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that Iran’s continuing refusal to provide more information on its nuclear program had left the international community “little choice” but to impose new, tough sanctions on Teheran.

In congressional testimony on Wednesday, Clinton said Iran’s failure to accept the Obama administration’s offers of engagement and prove its nuclear intentions were peaceful had given the US and its partners new resolve in pressuring Teheran to comply with international demands through fresh penalties.

“We have pursued a dual-track approach to Iran that has exposed its refusal to live up to its responsibilities and helped us achieve a new unity with our international partners,” she told the Senate Appropriations Committee.

“Iran has left the international community little choice but to impose greater costs and pressure in the face of its provocative steps. We are now working actively with our partners to prepare and implement new measures to pressure Iran to change its course,” Clinton said, in comments that seemed at odds with Rozhkov’s statement in Moscow.

Netanyahu’s office had no comment on Rozhkov’s remarks, while one government official said Israel would likely seek clarification from the Kremlin.

The position articulated by Rozhkov runs contrary to the impression Netanyahu gave reporters last week in Moscow when, after meeting with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, he said the feeling toward sanctions in Moscow today was dramatically different than it was 10 months ago.

Clinton addressed the possibility that Congress might impose its own sanctions on Iran, besides those the US was seeking through the UN Security Council. Congressional sanctions might be tougher than any for which the United States could win international approval at the UN, but the US wants international backing for its tough stance against Iran and sees the UN penalties as a powerful symbol of world resolve against an Iranian bomb.

The comments from Moscow came as a bit of a surprise, as top officials both in Washington and Jerusalem have expressed optimism in recent weeks that significant nonmilitary action, such as “crippling” sanctions, could have a real impact on Teheran.

The Israeli delegation to Thursday’s strategic dialogue in Jerusalem will be led by Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, while the US team will be headed by Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg. This is the first meeting of the strategic dialogue framework, which was set up in 1999, since Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama came into office.

The meeting comes as both Jerusalem and Washington believe that Iran is making its international position more difficult by continuing to talk about enriching uranium to higher levels. While it is unclear exactly which way China – which holds a veto on the UN Security Council – will vote on sanctions, there is a growing sense that it would be unlikely to buck the will of most of the rest of the world – and the other permanent members of the Security Council – and scuttle sanctions. This assessment is largely based on previous Chinese behavior and Beijing’s general reticence to defy international consensus.

A high-level Israeli delegation, led by Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer, left for Beijing on Wednesday to lobby on behalf of sanctions.

In the run-up to the Security Council sanctions vote, expected sometime in March, the US is doing its utmost to distance itself from any hint that sanctions were intended for regime change in Teheran, and not only to stop the nuclear program. The fear is that this could chase both Russia and China away from supporting a fourth round of sanctions.

For instance, Rozhkov told reporters on Wednesday that “Russia isn’t working or participating in actions which should lead to overthrowing the existing regime. We are working with the US and others… only to solve those concerns we have regarding Iranian nuclear efforts.”

Also on Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov suggested that a delay in delivering air-defense missiles to Iran was connected with concerns about regional tensions.

Russia signed a contract in 2007 to sell S-300 missiles to Iran, a move that would substantially boost the country’s defense capacities and make an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities more difficult.

Lavrov, when asked about the delivery, said Russia never takes “any actions leading to the destabilization of this or that region. All deliveries of Russian weapons abroad follow from the need to strictly respect this principle.”

It marks the first time Russia has publicly called into question the wisdom of honoring its contractual obligations to Iran. Various Russian defense officials had suggested in recent weeks, including the day before Netanyahu went to Moscow last week, that the commitment to supply the missiles would be fulfilled.

When pressed on the specific reason for the missile holdup, Lavrov broadened the question by referring to arms sales by any country to South America, the Caucasus and the Middle East.

“There are certain principles we need to be guided by when selling arms,” he said. “We cannot sell weapons if it will destabilize any of these regions.”

Netanyahu, asked after his meeting last week with President Dmitry Medvedev whether he had received assurances that Moscow would not supply the weapons systems, said, “I trust what I heard from the president of Russia. I trust him because I know that in this issue, Russia is guided by concerns about regional stability.”

AP contributed to this report.