Russia signaled renewed aversion to tighter sanctions on Iran on Wednesday and Israel said a decision on a possible attack was “very far off” as European powers prepared to escalate the conflict with Tehran over its nuclear intentions.
The comments came a day after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ordered extra security for scientists following the drive-by assassination of a senior official at the country’s primary uranium enrichment facility.
Five days before European Union foreign ministers meet to weigh a possible oil embargo, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov criticized the idea at an annual news conference in Moscow, saying “it has nothing to do with a desire to strengthen the nuclear non-proliferation. It’s aimed at stifling the Iranian economy and the population in an apparent hope to provoke discontent,” The Associated Press reported.
He also said the consequences of a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities would be “extremely grave,” triggering “a chain reaction, and I don’t know where it will stop.”
In Jerusalem, news reports said that Defense Minster Ehud Barak told Army Radio that Israel was “very far off” from deciding whether to launch an attack. The prospect of military action has been openly debated in both Israel and the United States as Western leaders say Iran is seeking to build nuclear weapons but Tehran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful, civilian purposes.
At the same time, the assassination in Tehran last Wednesday of Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, the deputy director of Iran’s Natanz enrichment site, has provoked talk of a covert war, coinciding with a ferment of diplomatic maneuvering by Western countries seeking to halt the nuclear program.
At his news conference on Wednesday, Mr. Lavrov insisted that there was still a prospect of negotiation with Tehran by the outside powers that have sought a settlement in the past — the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany.
“We believe that there is every chance to resume talks between the six powers and Iran, and we are concerned about obstacles being put to them,” Mr. Lavrov said, according to The A.P. “The sanctions could hardly help make the talks productive.”
State-run Iranian news media on Tuesday quoted Mr. Ahmadinejad as blaming “the evil hands of arrogance and Zionist agents” for the assassination of Mr. Roshan.
The nature of the extra security order by Mr. Ahmadinejad was not disclosed, but it was reported a day after Iran’s Parliament speaker, Ali Larijani, another outspoken promoter of Iran’s nuclear independence, said that investigators had identified and detained an unspecified number of suspects in the assassination. Mr. Roshan was killed in broad daylight by a motorcyclist who slapped a magnetized bomb on the scientist’s car during Tehran’s morning rush and escaped, according to Iran’s official accounts.
While the assassination method was not sophisticated, the killer’s apparent knowledge of the victim and his commuting schedule seemed to reflect an intelligence lapse in Iran, where at least five scientists with connections to Iran’s disputed nuclear program have been killed under mysterious circumstances since 2007.
Iran’s leaders have blamed Israel and the United States for the killings, which they have characterized as part of a broader conspiracy to terrorize and bully Iran despite what they called its peaceful intentions regarding nuclear energy. The United States has categorically denied the accusation, while Israel, which considers Iran its most dangerous enemy, has been more vague.
The United States, Israel and the European Union have accused Iran of using its nuclear energy program as a pretext for developing a weapon. They have pointed to a report last November by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations nuclear monitor, which highlighted questionable Iranian actions, to bolster their case. American and European economic sanctions on Iran over the dispute, and Iran’s defiance, have fed an atmosphere of increasingly tense confrontation and mistrust.
In a condolence message about Mr. Roshan’s assassination released Tuesday, Mr. Ahmadinejad was quoted by Press TV, a state-run satellite channel, as saying, “The evil hands of arrogance and Zionist agents have once again robbed Iran’s scientific and academic circles of another young scientist.”
Iran’s anti-Western denunciations came as the European Union and United States took new steps on Tuesday to raise the pressure. Denmark, the rotating president of the European Union, proposed that starting July 1, all countries in that body impose a full embargo of Iranian oil, Reuters reported, putting a date on that threatened step for the first time. In South Korea, a major importer of Iranian oil, a senior American diplomat, Robert J. Einhorn, urged buyers there to reduce their dependence and “unwind their financial dealings with the Central Bank of Iran.”
A new law signed by President Obama, if fully enforced, would penalize any foreign entity that does business with the Central Bank, the primary conduit for purchases of Iran’s oil, its most important export. While the law allows some leeway, it is widely seen as the most punitive step yet taken by the United States against Iran.
While Iran has said that it will never relinquish its right to enrich uranium and that any attempt to impede its oil sales will fail, it has signaled willingness to reopen suspended negotiations with the Western powers and allow inspectors from the United Nations nuclear agency to visit Iran to ask more questions. The official Islamic Republic News Agency confirmed on Tuesday that an agency team would visit Iran for three days starting on Jan. 29.