MOSCOW — Russia publicly pushed back Tuesday against U.S. efforts to threaten tough new sanctions if Iran fails to prove its nuclear program is peaceful, dealing an apparent setback to President Barack Obama's hopes for Moscow's backing for fresh penalties against Tehran.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Moscow believed such threats were "counterproductive" and that only negotiations should be pursued now. Just last month, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev had said that sanctions are rarely productive but "in some cases they are inevitable," a statement the U.S. hailed as a shift of opinion in Moscow.
Lavrov, at a joint news conference Tuesday with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, said diplomacy "still has chances to succeed."
"At the current stage, all forces should be thrown at supporting the negotiating process," Lavrov said. "Threats, sanctions and threats of pressure in the current situation, we are convinced, would be counterproductive."
Clinton, on her first visit to Moscow as secretary of state, had been hoping for an overt signal from Russia that it will consider new sanctions if Iran refuses to come clean about its nuclear intentions.
Instead, Lavrov's comment exposed a tactical rift between the United States and Russia in which Washington is pushing diplomatic engagement backed by the threat of U.N. sanctions, while Moscow wants to discuss only negotiations.
Russia has balked at sanctions. However, there had been indications that its opposition might be softening after Tehran last month disclosed a previously secret uranium enrichment site near the holy city of Qom. U.S.-Russian relations also improved after Obama dropped Bush administration plans for a missile defense system based for eastern Europe that Russia had fiercely opposed.
Lavrov said Medvedev's statement about sanctions last month meant that penalties would be considered only when all political and diplomatic efforts are exhausted.
Three senior American officials said later that Medvedev had reaffirmed his earlier statement in a private meeting with Clinton at his home outside Moscow.
They denied there was any "daylight" between the U.S. and Russian positions but could not explain Lavrov's "counterproductive" remark. They allowed that the comment had taken them aback but said that Medvedev had not repeated it. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the private diplomatic discussions.
The U.S. believes it is critical to get tangible signs of support from Moscow for at least considering new sanctions because the more united they are, the more likely pressure on Iran is to work.
At the news conference, Clinton said she had not sought Moscow's support for actually imposing sanctions and did not believe it was time to do so. But she also said it was critical to let Iran know what will happen should it continue to rebuff the nuclear demands.
"We have always looked at the potential of sanctions in the event we are not successful and cannot assure ourselves and others that Iran has decided not to pursue nuclear weapons," Clinton said.
Iran has made pledges to take small steps that if fulfilled would serve as confidence-builders. Those include opening up a recently disclosed uranium enrichment plant to U.N. inspectors and sending existing stocks of low enriched uranium to Russia for reprocessing.
Iran insists it has the right to a full domestic nuclear enrichment program and maintains it is only for peaceful purposes, such as energy production. The U.S. and others believe Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons.
Obama — who visited Russia in July — has vowed to "reset" U.S.-Russia relations and Clinton brought a wide range of issues to Moscow for discussion.
Clinton apologized for missing Obama's visit because of a broken elbow, but joked that that "now both my elbow and our relationships are reset and we're moving forward, which I greatly welcome," she said.
Beyond Iran, Lavrov said U.S. and Russia negotiators have made "considerable" progress on reaching agreement on a new strategic arms treaty. The 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START, expires in December and negotiators have been racing to reach agreement on a successor.
The two diplomats also discussed possible cooperation on missile defense following Obama's decision not to proceed with the Bush-administration plans. Russia has welcomed Obama's new approach, but has said it was eager for more detailed information.
Also on the agenda were Afghanistan, nuclear-armed North Korea, NATO expansion, the situation in Georgia after its conflict with Russia last year, human rights and arms control.
Clinton also met with human rights activists and civic leaders some of whom have complained of harassment and abuse.
One person not on Clinton's agenda was Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, generally seen as Russia's most powerful political figure. He was in China to sign a framework agreement for $3.5 billion in energy deals.
Putin's absence from the Russian capital highlighted Moscow's growing recognition of the global clout of its eastern neighbor — and to some even suggested an effort to show the United States it's not the only game in town.