- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 18, 2012

MOSCOW — A military attack on Iran would trigger a “chain reaction” that destabilizes the world, while new sanctions against Tehran over its disputed nuclear program would “stifle” the Iranian economy and hurt its people, Russia’s foreign minister warned Wednesday.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Russia is “seriously worried” about the prospect of a military action against Iran and is doing all it can to prevent it.

“The consequences will be extremely grave,” he said. “It’s not going to be an easy walk. It will trigger a chain reaction and I don’t know where it will stop.”

The threat of more sanctions as well as the possibility of military action against Iran are linked to concerns about its uranium enrichment program. The U.S. and its Western allies suspect it is aimed at developing nuclear weapons. Iran insists its efforts are designed for civilian power generation and research.

Israel considers a nuclear-armed Iran a threat to its survival and has hinted it could take military action if sanctions fail to stop Iran’s nuclear bid. The U.S. considers a military strike on Iran’s known nuclear facilities undesirable because it could have unintended consequences and would likely only stall, not end, Tehran’s nuclear drive. Washington worries that Iran’s recent claim that it is expanding nuclear operations might prod Israel closer to a strike.

Russia has long walked a fine line on the Iranian nuclear crisis, mixing careful criticism of Iran, an important trading partner, with praise for some of its moves and calls for more talks. Although Moscow, which built Iran’s first nuclear power plant, has backed some of the previous U.N. sanctions against Iran, it has in recent months firmly rejected new ones.

In a press conference, Lavrov predicted that a military attack on Iran would send refugees streaming into its Caspian Sea neighbor Azerbaijan and further on to Russia, and said it could also “add fuel to the smoldering confrontation between Sunnis and Shiites.” The Sunni Arab states in the Gulf like Saudi Arabia are close U.S. allies, locked in decades-old rivalries with Iran’s Shiite-led Islamic Republic.

The U.S. already has imposed new sanctions targeting Iran’s central bank and, by extension, refiners’ ability to buy and pay for crude. The EU is weighing whether to impose sanctions on buying Iranian oil, which is the source of more than 80 percent of Tehran’s foreign revenue.

On Wednesday, Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo said his nation will back a possible EU oil embargo against Iran that would start July 1 even though it would inflict “huge damage” on its two major oil importers.

Cash-strapped Greece has indicated it wants to stall any action because it is an importer of Iranian oil and gets the best payment terms from Tehran. EU ambassadors will address the issue Thursday ahead of next Monday’s meeting of EU foreign ministers.

Lavrov, however, said sanctions on Iranian oil exports have “nothing to do with a desire to strengthen the nuclear nonproliferation.” ”It’s aimed at stifling the Iranian economy and the population in an apparent hope to provoke discontent,” the Russian foreign minister said.

Russia believes that “all conceivable sanctions already have been applied” and that new penalties could derail hopes for continuing six-way negotiations on the Iranian nuclear program, provoking Iranian intransigence, Lavrov said.

He noted that the EU’s consideration of new sanctions comes as Iran plans to host a delegation from the U.N. nuclear watchdog.

“We believe that there is every chance to resume talks between the six powers and Iran, and we are concerned about obstacles being put to them,” he said. “The sanctions could hardly help make the talks productive.”

Iran’s Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said Wednesday upon arrival in the Turkish capital that Istanbul is the likely venue for further talks with world powers on his country’s nuclear program. He did not give a date for the negotiations, but said Turkey is in touch with Iranian and EU officials.

Meanwhile, Iran’s official IRNA news agency said a senior security official, Ali Bagheri, headed to Moscow for talks with Lavrov and other Russian officials Wednesday.

Ali Akbar Dareini in Tehran, Iran and Selcan Hacaoglu in Ankara, Turkey, contributed to this report.

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