BERLIN – Russia and China said Thursday that they oppose sanctions and other punitive measures against Iran, spoiling U.S. and European hopes for a display of international unity on efforts to stop Tehran’s suspected nuclear weapons program.
Meeting here with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, top diplomats from Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia called on Iran to heed a U.N. Security Council statement issued Wednesday demanding that Iran abandon its efforts to enrich uranium that could be used in nuclear arms.
But if there was agreement on that general goal, there was no agreement apparent on tactics in the weeks ahead.
Both Rice and British Foreign Minister Jack Straw raised the possibility of sanctions during the three-and-a-half-hour meeting.
But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said afterward that Russia saw little value in sanctions. “In principle, Russia doesn’t believe that sanctions could achieve the purposes of settlement of various issues,” he said.
Lavrov also seemed to question the evidence that Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons under cover of a civilian atomic energy program. “Before we call any situation a threat, we need facts, especially in a region like the Middle East, where so many things are happening,” he said.
Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Dai Bingguo called for “time, persistence and wisdom.”
“The Chinese side feels that there has already been enough turmoil in the Middle East. We do not want to see new turmoil being introduced to the region,” Dai said, using unusually blunt language for a Chinese diplomat.
The Russian and Chinese statements appeared to reflect suspicions, fueled by the U.S. invasion of Iraq, that the Bush administration is trying to lay the groundwork for military strikes against nuclear sites in Iran.
During three weeks of negotiations over this week’s statement by the president of the Security Council, Russia successfully fought to remove language saying Iran’s nuclear work is a threat to global security.
In Moscow’s view, such language could serve as a trigger for sanctions, or even the use of force, under the U.N. Charter. Russia wants the issue dealt with by the International Atomic Energy Agency, not the Security Council.
Rice, briefing reporters on her flight to Berlin, denied this was Washington’s intent.
At a press conference, Rice said the meeting “does send a very strong signal to Iran that the international community is united and expects Iran to adhere to (its) just demands.”