MOSCOW (Reuters) - A senior Russian diplomat said on Wednesday that Russia and China had pressed Iran to accept a United Nations offer to replace fuel for an atomic reactor.
Western diplomats had told Reuters that Russia and China both told Iran early this month they wanted it to change its approach and accept the U.N.-brokered offer, under which Iran would send uranium abroad for enrichment.
"Russian and Chinese representatives held talks with Iranian Foreign Ministry representatives in Tehran," the Russian Foreign Ministry official said on condition of anonymity.
He said the talks were held in the context of efforts by the five permanent U.N. Security Council members plus Germany to tackle Iran's nuclear programme -- which the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency fears may include developing a nuclear-armed missile.
"The essence of these actions was to induce Tehran to act within the previously agreed framework under the six countries' programme to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue," said the senior diplomat, at a background briefing with reporters in Moscow.
Last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Iran was letting the opportunity for normal cooperation slip away.
Russian frustration with Iran has been growing since Tehran snubbed the U.N. plan, which provided for Iran to ship most of its low-enriched uranium stockpile to Russia and France for further enrichment and processing into fuel assemblies for a Tehran medical reactor.
At the United Nations, Western diplomats saw it as significant that Russia and China, the most reluctant of the big powers to impose sanctions, were putting pressure on Iran.
The diplomat declined to spell out what sanctions Moscow would support, repeating previous Russian comments that they must not hurt the Iranian people and were not inevitable.
"Nevertheless, the clouds are gathering, and Iran's position leaves less room for diplomatic manoeuvre. That does not mean that the case can be closed and we can proceed to the next step, of sanctions. It has not yet come this far," he said.
The latest U.S. sanctions draft includes a proposed ban on more Iranian banks operating abroad and foreign banks in Iran, as well as an arms embargo with international inspections, Western diplomats at the United Nations have told Reuters.
"Russia, if (sanctions) become inevitable, will possibly support the sanctions ... Russia is definitely against any paralysing sanctions that are aimed at punishing Iran or changing the regime," the Russian diplomat said.
"You cannot punish 70 million Iranians because of this problem," he said.
Iran rejects Western allegations that it is seeking to develop nuclear weapons, insisting that its programme is intended purely for power generation, and has ignored five U.N. resolutions ordering it to halt its enrichment programme.
Reporting by Conor Sweeney; Editing by Kevin Liffey