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MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia said on Wednesday it would support gradual sanctions at the United Nations against Iran over its nuclear program, but will not back "excessive" measures.
The U.N. Security Council was expected to vote this week on penalizing Iran for refusing to suspend its uranium enrichment program, which the United States says is a cover for a nuclear weapons bid.
Russia, which holds a veto in the Security Council, helped draft the resolution now under consideration. But Moscow opposes a U.S.-led push to use the Council to impose much harsher measures against Tehran in the future.
"We earlier agreed to act on Iran gradually and proportionately ... We will not support excessive sanctions," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the lower house of Russia's parliament.
He did not specify what measures Moscow would consider excessive.
Russian officials have said they share Western concerns about a nuclear-armed Iran but believe a policy of constructive engagement will be more effective at preventing this than forcing Tehran into a corner.
"South Africa and Indonesia have proposed amendments (to the proposed U.N. resolution) which among other things underline the global nature of non-proliferation and we believe these amendments deserve the most attentive consideration," Lavrov said. "We will treat them constructively."
South Africa has called for a suspension of all sanctions against Iran and a renewal of negotiations.
In Iran, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was defiant in the face of possible new U.N. sanctions. Tehran denies any ambitions to make a nuclear bomb and says a civilian nuclear program to generate electricity is its sovereign right.
Ahmadinejad said in a televised address that "some major powers" were against Iran's development and blamed "a group of racist Zionists" for the world's problems.
"They cannot harm the Iranian nation. By making an uproar, they want to make us retreat and to prevent our development ... but definitely everyone knows that they are incapable (of this)," he said.
Russia has slapped down a report in the New York Times newspaper, citing European diplomats, that Moscow threatened to halt work building Iran's Bushehr nuclear power station unless Tehran stopped uranium enrichment.
Lavrov said on Wednesday the information was untrue and that it was leaked in an "indecent attempt to ... provoke an argument between us and someone else, in this case clearly Iran."
"There is no link between work on the resolution aimed at resolving the situation around Iran's nuclear program on the one hand and the ... building of the nuclear power station in Bushehr," he said.
However, diplomats interviewed by Reuters in Europe and Washington said Moscow had made clear several days ago that it would not deliver promised nuclear fuel to Bushehr until Iran complies with a U.N. demand to halt enrichment.
Russian contractors have nearly finished work at the station, though completion has been postponed indefinitely. Russia has blamed a payment dispute for the delay but diplomats say the reasons are political.
Additional reporting by Edmund Blair in Tehran