Russia Hardens Tone on Iran, Says Won’t Block US Efforts

Russian officials have hardened their criticism of Iran’s decision to resume sensitive nuclear research, but analysts said the comments did not signal a major change in Moscow’s position on the Iran nuclear standoff, the AFX news agency reports.

Iran’s decision to resume nuclear research “personally disappoints me and gives some cause for alarm,” Russian news agencies quoted Russian Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov as saying.The minister declined to speculate on whether the growing confrontation over Iran’s nuclear program would lead to action by the UN Security Council, but said things were not moving in a positive direction.

“As a permanent UN Security Council member, Russia reserves the right to act according to the situation. But whatever the case may be, the situation is not developing in the most favorable way.”

Ivanov, who also holds the post of deputy prime minister, spoke as foreign ministers from the three main EU countries leading negotiations with Iran — the UK, France and Germany — prepared to meet Thursday in Berlin to discuss how to proceed on the crisis.

The Russian Foreign Ministry earlier said it was “deeply disappointed” by Iran’s decision and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called Tehran’s move a “cause for concern”. That was in sharp contrast to earlier announcements that have supported Iran’s right to a civilian atomic energy program.

But Russian analysts said the apparent escalation in official rhetoric on Iran did not signal any major policy shift from Russia, which has argued against referring Tehran to the UN Security Council over the country’s controversial nuclear program. “It’s the first time that such a level of preoccupation is expressed but in my view it’s not a real public condemnation… It remains to be seen whether Russian policy will really change or if it’s only in words,” said Yevgeny Volk, director of the Heritage Foundation in Moscow.

“There are too many financial interests of influential groups in the Russian elite linked to sales to Iran,” he continued.

Russia has provided Iran with nuclear technology and is building Iran’s first nuclear reactor at Bushehr at a total cost estimated by observers at $1.2 billion.

Iran on Tuesday announced the end of a two-year suspension of nuclear fuel research, escalating the long-running standoff with the West over its nuclear program.

The Washington Post reported Thursday that the Bush administration, working intensely to galvanize international pressure on Iran, has secured a guarantee from Russia that it will not block U.S. efforts to take Tehran’s nuclear case to the UN Security Council.

The commitment, made in a Tuesday night phone call between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, will likely help the United States and its European allies win support from key countries weighing a tougher line in response to Iran’s resumption of sensitive nuclear work.

Vice President Cheney and British Prime Minister Tony Blair suggested Wednesday that Iran now faces the possibility of UN economic sanctions if it does not halt nuclear enrichment research it began Tuesday.

According to three senior diplomats who were briefed on the call, Lavrov told Rice that Russia would abstain, rather than vote against U.S. efforts to move the issue from the International Atomic Energy Agency to the Security Council. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack confirmed to reporters that Rice had spoken with Lavrov and other foreign ministers but did not divulge details.

Russia’s pledge was good only for when a vote takes place inside the IAEA. U.S. officials said they remain uncertain as to how Moscow, a traditional ally of Iran’s, would react if the issue gets to the Security Council, where Moscow is one of five countries with veto power.

Still, Bush administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity saw the Russian decision as a victory and said they would spend the next several weeks lobbying China for a similar commitment. “We spent much of our time working on the Russians, but we’re now moving the focus to China,” said one administration official who would only discuss the backroom diplomacy on the condition of anonymity.

The White House is hoping the IAEA board will refer Iran’s case to the Security Council before President Bush delivers the State of the Union address at the end of the month, according to two senior administration officials.

Four years ago, in his annual address, Bush referred to Iran as one of three “axis of evil” countries, along with Iraq and North Korea. But his administration has been criticized by friends and opponents for failing to come up with a strategy to curb Iran’s nuclear program