Russia supports Iran sanctions, but with limits

By Michael D. Shear and Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 9, 2010

PRAGUE -- Russian President Dmitry Medvedev told President Obama privately Thursday that there remain limits to his country's support for sanctions on Iran, even as the move for united action to restrain Iran's nuclear ambition accelerates.

Obama and Medvedev together pledged support for imposing sanctions on Iran as soon as this spring, using the sidelines of a signing ceremony for a historic nuclear arms reduction treaty as a venue for private discussions.

The administration is pressing hard this month for a new U.N. Security Council resolution that would tighten sanctions on the Islamic republic for refusing to engage in talks about its nuclear program, but it faces reluctance from China as well as countries such as Brazil and Turkey on the 15-member council.

Speaking to reporters after an 85-minute closed-door meeting with Medvedev, Obama expressed hope that negotiators in New York will secure "strong, tough sanctions on Iran this spring."

"We are going to be pushing very hard to make sure that both smart and strong sanctions end up being in place soon to send a signal to Iran and other countries that this is an issue that the international community takes seriously," Obama said.

In his remarks, Medvedev said he agrees that nations cannot "turn a blind eye" to Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons and said he "cannot disagree" with what Obama said. But he made clear that Russian support for sanctions will be conditioned on their intent to change Iran's behavior, not to punish its people.

"Let me put it straightforward," Medvedev said of his discussions with Obama at the meeting at Prague Castle. "I have outlined our limits for such sanctions."

Officials from both countries said later that Medvedev privately offered a broad range of objections to sanctions, including actions that would create economic hardship for Iran, foment financial chaos or lead to regime change.

Sergei Ryabkov, Russia's deputy foreign minister, told reporters in Prague that Medvedev and Obama discussed sanctions that would be "targeted, tailored." Ryabkov said, for example, that a total embargo on deliveries of refined oil would "mean a slap, a blow, a huge shock for the whole society."

Top White House officials who participated in the closed-door meeting said Medvedev described for Obama the "redlines" that Russia could not cross. They declined to elaborate on those objections, but said that sanctions on Iran's energy sector are "not off the table."

"We're into the heart of discussion, what should be in the resolution," said Michael McFaul, the president's senior Russia adviser. "We discussed energy today, obviously. It is not off the table. Where it ends up, I don't know."

The Obama-Medvedev exchange came as negotiators for six nations are meeting in New York to draft sanction language that could pass muster in the Security Council. Iran insists that its nuclear program is peaceful, but has refused to stop enriching uranium that the United States and other countries say is part of a secret weapons program.

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