- The Washington Times - Monday, February 15, 2010

MOSCOW (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday he pressed for “severe sanctions” against Iran over its nuclear program in his meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, and he praised the Russian leader for showing “an understanding” over the issue.

The meeting came just days after Iran announced it would be enriching uranium to higher levels. That process could be used to build bombs if ramped up further and has fueled Israel’s conviction that Iran wants to ultimately develop nuclear weapons.

“I expressed our position that what are needed now are very severe sanctions that have the ability to influence this regime. Severe sanctions have to include the import and export of fuel,” Mr. Netanyahu told reporters after the meeting. “I found a considerable degree of understanding from the Russian president to the problems concerning us.”

Israel considers Iran to be its greatest threat, citing Tehran’s support for Arab militants, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s threats to destroy Israel and Iran’s nuclear program.

Israel has been on the forefront of pushing for sanctions, and Mr. Netanyahu said Monday they could be effective since 80 percent of the Iranian economy was based on energy.

Russia generally has resisted new sanctions but has shown increasing frustration over the past week as Iran proceeds with uranium enrichment despite international pressure.

Mr. Netanyahu said that in his talks with Mr. Medvedev he noticed a shift in the Russian position.

“I can say that Russia definitely understands there is a need to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons and it understands that steps must be taken,” he said. “I think that Russia understands Iran’s direction very well and is considering what to do with other members of the Security Council.”

Iran already has defied three sets of U.N. sanctions. China, which relies on Iran for energy supplies, is the only other major power resisting further sanctions.

Mr. Netanyahu said he insisted that the next round of sanctions be “sanctions that have teeth” and can thwart the threat from Iran. He described his meeting with Mr. Medvedev as warm and friendly and said the two talked about joint projects between the two countries. Mr. Medvedev welcomed Mr. Netanyahu to the Kremlin by saying Russia regards Israel as more than an ordinary partner.

After four decades of Cold War animosity, ties between Moscow and Israel have improved significantly since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Israel is also home to more than 1 million Soviet immigrants.

But Moscow’s positions on Iran and its arms sales to Syria have strained ties, as have Israeli weapons sales to Georgia, which Russia invaded in 2008 in support of pro-Moscow secessionists. Israel since has scaled back its weapons sales to Georgia.

Iran’s Bushehr atomic energy plant was built by Russia, and the country has worked to keep strong ties with Iran, despite concerns that the Bushehr plant would be a stepping stone toward nuclear weapons.

Russia also has caused concern in Israel with its contract to sell S-300 long-range air-defense missiles to Iran, which would significantly boost Iran’s defense capability.

None of the missiles have been delivered, Russian officials say, although there have been no public explanations for the delay. Some observers suggest Russia is holding back on the missiles to persuade Iran to back off on its nuclear ambitions.

Mr. Netanyahu refused to divulge what was discussed on this matter but said he left the meeting optimistic.

“I trust what I heard from the president of Russia. I trust him because I know that in this issue, Russia is guided by concerns about regional stability,” he said.

While Israel has said it hopes diplomacy will resolve the nuclear standoff, it has not ruled out military action. In 1981, Israeli warplanes destroyed an Iraqi nuclear reactor.

An Israeli air attack in 2007 destroyed what the United States says was a nearly finished nuclear reactor in Syria that would have been able to produce plutonium when completed.

Mr. Netanyahu refused to say whether an Israeli military offensive was discussed, but he remarked there has been a convergence of international opinion on the threat from Tehran.

“There is a growing understanding about the Iranian threat and the need to stop them from developing a nuclear weapon. The gaps between the leading countries is getting smaller and smaller.”

The two-day visit by Mr. Netanyahu is his first official trip to Russia since taking office a year ago. But he made a clandestine visit to Moscow in September after rumors emerged that a hijacked Russian freighter may have been secretly carrying S-300s bound for Iran. No details of that visit have been released, although Mr. Medvedev later acknowledged it had taken place.

Israel is believed to possess nuclear arms but refuses to confirm or deny its status. Again this year, its rivals have demanded that Israel open up its facilities to inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

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