Last updated: September 25, 2009 11:25 pm

Moscow hardens stance towards Tehran

President Dmitry Medvedev hardened Russia’s stance on Iran’s nuclear programme on Friday after the US, Britain and France revealed that Tehran possesses a hitherto secret uranium enrichment facility.

As the world powers that negotiate with Iran over its nuclear programme prepared to confront the Teh­ran regime at a meeting on Thursday, Moscow’s apparent change of approach will be analysed closely by western diplomats.

The key issue for the US and its allies will be the reaction from Russia and China to the news, amid hopes that the international community will present a united front at next week’s meeting in Geneva. Moscow and Beijing have tried to block the west from imposing sanctions on Tehran.

It emerged on Friday that US President Barack Obama briefed Mr Medvedev on Thursday at the UN General Assembly in New York about the uranium enrichment site. Mr Medvedev said immediately after: “I don’t consider sanctions the best way to achieve results on Iran . . . but all the same, if all possibilities to influence the situation are exhausted, then we can use international sanctions.”

A statement from Mr Medvedev on Friday said the revelations on the second site “seriously concern” the Kremlin. He urged Iran to make clear in the next few days that its nuclear programme is peaceful.

China responded more neutrally. “We hope that Iran will co-operate with the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN watchdog] on this matter,” said a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry at the G20 summit in Pittsburgh. He Yafei, a vice-foreign minister, said: “The standoff with Iran over its nuclear programme can only be resolved through dialogue.”

Western diplomats have long believed that if Russia throws its weight behind sanctions China will follow, wishing to avoid isolation in the UN Security Council.

The revelation of the second site comes at a key moment in international talks on Iran’s programme. Mr Obama has made clear for months that he will give Iran until the end of the year to enter talks over its programme, which many western states believe is designed to create a bomb.

If Iran fails to negotiate, the US, Britain and France will seek to have harsh new economic sanctions agreed at the UN.

Iran’s response to international demands that it suspend its uranium enrichment activities has been stubborn. Tehran sent a five-page letter to world powers two weeks ago, making little mention of the nuclear issue. Many western diplomats remain pessimistic of the chance of concessions from Iran at Thursday’s meeting, which will involve diplomats from the US, UK, Russia, China, France and Germany.

However, a shift in the position of Russia and China in favour of tough sanctions would apply huge pressure on the Iranians. Tehran has used divisions between the six leading powers to ignore international warnings on its nuclear programme.

“A more united stance by the six powers meeting Iran next week will make it far harder for Iran to wriggle out of making concessions,” said a European diplomat. Some European diplomats warned last night that Russia’s position needed to be tested. They believe that while Mr Medvedev has proved more accommodating to the US on the Iran issue, it is unclear if Vladimir Putin, Russia’s prime minister, sees things the same way.

Mr Medvedev’s remarks followed Mr Obama’s decision last week to ditch Bush-era plans to site missile defence bases in Poland and the Czech Republic, which Moscow had opposed. Mr Obama said last week if Russia increased co-operation with the US on Iran as a “byproduct” of his decision, it would be a “bonus”. China has reason to resist sanctions. Iran has become one of its biggest oil suppliers, accounting for 12 per cent of imports last year.

Some diplomats believe Beijing might eventually be persuaded to adopt a different position on Iran because China will want to maintain good relations with both the US and Saudi Arabia, which is also one of its main oil suppliers.

China will also be wary of the impact on its energy security of an arms race and increased instability in the Middle East that could result from Iran’s nuclear programme.

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