RUSSIA expressed regret and concern Tuesday about Iran's launch of uranium enrichment up to 20 per cent at an underground facility, but urged all parties involved in the nuclear standoff with Tehran to avoid hasty moves.

The Russian Foreign Ministry's statement mixed cautious criticism of Iran, an important trading partner, with a call for more talks -- a fine line Moscow has walked in the past.

The Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the launch of the work at the facility near Iran's holy city of Qom demonstrated that Tehran was continuing to ignore international concerns about its nuclear programme. It added, however, that Iran had notified the International Atomic Energy Agency in due time of its plans for the bunker.

"We hope that Tehran will listen to our opinion about the need for a further close cooperation with the agency and a quick start of serious six-way talks on the Iranian nuclear programme without any preconditions," it said.

The IAEA confirmed Monday that Iran has begun enriching uranium up to 20 per cent at an underground bunker at the Fordo site near Qom. Even though Tehran announced the move months ago, it increased international fears that Iran is determined to move closer to the ability to make nuclear warheads despite its assurances that its programme is aimed exclusively at producing reactor fuel.

US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Tuesday that Tehran is breaking its international obligations and demonstrating a "blatant disregard for its responsibilities", adding that enrichment at the Fordo site was especially troubling because Iran previously sought to hide the facility from UN monitors. She said "there is no plausible justification" to enrich to 20 per cent and that the step brings Iran closer to nuclear weapons capacity.

The Russian Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, said Moscow was urging all parties involved in the Iranian nuclear standoff to avoid "ill-considered and abrupt moves", which could undermine prospects for talks with Iran.

"We confirm that all problems linked with the Iranian nuclear programme must be solved exclusively through talks and dialogue based on mutual respect, gradual movement and reciprocity," it said, adding that Russia is ready to help the negotiations.

Russia had treaded a similar path over recent years, alternating criticism of Iran's intransigence with praise for some of its moves and readiness to continue the dialogue. Iran has insisted that its uranium enrichment programme is aimed at civilian power generation and research, but Western nations suspect it of serving as a cover for a nuclear weapons bid.

Moscow backed some of the previous UN sanctions against Iran, but in recent months has firmly rejected imposing any new sanctions and called for dialogue.

Russia built Iran's first nuclear power plant in the southern port of Bushehr, which began producing electricity in September. Russia's nuclear chief said last November that Iran would like more Russian-built reactors.

Britain's Middle East minister Alistair Burt on Tuesday called on nations opposed to Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons to increase pressure against Tehran.

"A few weeks ago the British government imposed tough new financial restrictions against Iran. These new sanctions make it illegal for any financial institution in the UK to have any dealings with any institution in Iran, including the Central Bank of Iran," Burt said, in a speech to the Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel.

"They are the toughest of their kind. And we will build on them, getting others to follow suit. We are working with the EU on sanctions against Iranian oil," he said.

Italy's foreign minister on Tuesday said his country would support a gradually imposed embargo on Iranian oil.

Guilio Terzi di Sant'Agata met with his French counterpart, Alain Juppe, in Paris. Afterward, Terzi said his government favours an embargo imposed gradually, "over several months".

President Barack Obama approved new sanctions against Iran a week ago, targeting the central bank and its ability to sell petroleum abroad. The US has delayed implementing the sanctions for at least six months, worried about sending the price of oil higher at a time when the global economy is struggling.

Iran has responded to the Western pressure with threats and military posturing. A senior commander of the Revolutionary Guard force was recently quoted as saying Tehran's leadership has decided to order the closure of the Strait of Hormuz, a strategic oil route, if the country's petroleum exports are blocked.

By Vladimir Isachenkov, Associated Press


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