Netanyahu to lobby in Russia for Iran sanctions
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will push for urgent "crippling sanctions" against Iran over its nuclear program during talks in Moscow on Monday with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
"We will discuss a number of issues. First and foremost the Iranian issue," Netanyahu said on Sunday at the weekly Israeli cabinet meeting. He flies to Moscow later in the day.
"Israel believes that heavy pressure must be applied on Iran --- above all very severe sanctions, which were referred to by the U.S. secretary of state as 'crippling sanctions'," Netanyahu said.
Iran's announcement this week that it had begun making higher-grade nuclear fuel has heightened Western suspicions that Tehran is trying to develop atomic weapons.
The United States, Britain, France and Germany are mulling a fourth round of U.N. Security Council sanctions on Iran to persuade it to rein in its nuclear program.
Russia has indicated that it would not oppose new sanctions against Tehran for defying five U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding that it halt its nuclear enrichment program, but diplomats say China's position is less clear.
Israel, which is assumed to have the Middle East's only nuclear arsenal, has said a nuclear-armed Iran would pose a threat to the existence of the Jewish state.
Western officials involved in the six-power negotiations say Russia has been losing patience with Tehran and will likely support new sanctions, though it will oppose measures that it deems too tough, such as sanctions on Iran's energy sector.
The proposed sanctions include blacklisting Iran's central bank and more big banks, adding more Iranian individuals to a travel ban list, expanding an asset freeze to include more Iranian companies and imposing an arms imports ban.
Netanyahu said Israel also wants Russia to help speed up U.S.-led efforts to renew peace talks with the Palestinians that have been suspended since 2008. The Israeli prime minister has expressed his readiness to renew talks unconditionally.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas insists that settlement expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem must be halted before negotiations may resume. He has rejected a limited, 10-month construction freeze ordered by Israel in November as insufficient.
Russia, a member of the "quartet" of Middle East peace negotiators that includes the United Nations, the United States and the European Union, proposed last month that the forum convene for a ministerial-level meeting in Moscow in February.
"We need to get together promptly, the situation is very alarming," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was quoted on Sunday as saying by Russia's RIA news agency during a visit to Nicaragua.
Middle East envoy Tony Blair, who represents the quartet, said last week he would intensify his work with U.S. negotiator George Mitchell to broker peace talks.
Netanyahu last visited Russia in September on a secret one-day trip that was later confirmed by Israel after it leaked to the media.
Israeli media reports said he had flown to Moscow on a private plane to voice concern over the possible sale of Russian anti-aircraft missiles to Iran. Such missiles could hamper any Israeli air strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities.
(Additional reporting by Dmitry Solovyov in Moscow; Editing by Janet Lawrence)
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