MOSCOW Russia said global powers must work harder to win concessions from Iran over its nuclear program, warning that Tehran's desire for compromise is decreasing as it moves closer to being able to build atomic weapons.
Making a case for a renewed dialogue with Iran, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said four rounds of U.N. sanctions and additional measures by Western nations had had "zero" effect on its nuclear program.
"There is an alternative. The alternative is the introduction of a serious negotiations process with the Iranian side," Ryabkov, Moscow's pointman for Iran diplomacy, said in a interview posted on the ministry's website on Wednesday.
He said it would require "serious intent on the part of those holding this dialogue to seek compromises and propose a solution scheme that could interest the Iranian side."
His remarks were posted hours after Iran announced advances including faster centrifuges for uranium enrichment, but also expressed readiness for new talks with global powers on a nuclear program Western states fear is aimed at atomic arms.
Ryabkov emphasized that "an Iran with nuclear weapons is not an option for Russia" but said there was no "hard, unequivocal evidence" that nuclear work which Tehran says is for purely civilian purposes was in fact aimed at producing a bomb.
"We have no smoking gun confirming the presence of a military component and a military aspect of the Iranian nuclear program," he said in the interview with the journal Security Index.
Talks between Iran on one side and the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany on the other broke off a year ago with no progress in persuading Tehran to rein in its nuclear program and prove it is not seeking atomic weapons.
Russia, which built Iran's first nuclear power plant and has far warmer ties with Tehran than Western nations do, has often stressed the need for talks and said too much pressure on Tehran was counterproductive. Ryabkov suggested time was not on the side of the world powers.
As its nuclear program advances, he said, Tehran "is gradually losing interest in discussing variants of deals in which, in exchange for certain steps to limit and suspend a series of elements of its nuclear program, Iran would receive only some cosmetic improvements in its situation."
"We are concerned that the distance separating Iran from the hypothetical possession of the technologies for the creation of nuclear weapons is decreasing," Ryabkov said. "This is precisely why we believe it's necessary to reach an agreement."
Russia approved four rounds of sanctions in the U.N. Security Council in recent years, but says sanctions have exhausted their potential and criticizes the United States and European Union for imposing further punishments on Tehran.
"The result of these sanctions is, in the end, zero," Ryabkov said.
He suggested Western nations should use fewer threats and more attractive offers.
"The bargaining starts with a price that has no relation to reality," he said. "But if they see the buyer is not just wandering around the bazaar, that he really wants to buy this carpet, then the serious bargaining begins.
"But they will never just give the carpet away for free, and they certainly will not do so if the buyer takes a club or, worse, a pistol from his pocket," he said, apparently referring to speculation that Israel could attack Iranian nuclear sites and to the U.S. refusal to rule out a military option.
Ryabkov laid out some details of a Russian "step-by-step" plan in which sanctions would be eased in return for verifiable steps by Tehran.
As a start, he said, Iran could freeze the number of centrifuges for uranium enrichment at current levels and place other restrictions on its centrifuge use. In return, global powers would refrain from slapping new sanctions on Tehran.
Later, the powers could try to ease Iran's security concerns, "right up to measures of trust in naval activity in nearby bodies of water," he said, a reference to tension between the United States and Iran over the Strait of Hormuz.
(Editing by Andrew Roche)