A unified U.S.-Russian stance on sanctions against Iran would put added pressure on Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to yield some ground on his nation's nuclear program.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev opened the door Wednesday to backing potential sanctions as a reward for President Barack Obama's decision to scale back a U.S. missile shield in Eastern Europe.
While U.S. and Russian officials denied a flat-out quid pro quo, Medvedev told the U.N. General Assembly that Obama's pivot on a missile defense plan long loathed by Moscow "deserves a positive response." Obama himself has said his missile decision may have spurred Russian good will as a "bonus."
"We believe we need to help Iran to take a right decision," Medvedev said after the two leaders met on the sidelines of the U.N. assembly.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has taken a softer tone on many matters since arriving in New York for the U.N. meetings, emphasizing his interest in improving relations with the United States and expressing an openness to include nuclear matters on the negotiations agenda.
He has given no sign, however, that his country is willing to bargain away its nuclear program, which he insists is for peaceful purposes only.
In his speech to the General Assembly on Wednesday night, Ahmadinejad made no explicit reference to nuclear matters or prospective sanctions.
Obama's chief Russia adviser, Mike McFaul, told reporters after the meeting with Medvedev that there was no deal with Moscow on missile defense and Iran. Pressed further, he said: "Is it the case that it changes the climate? That's true, of course. But it's not cause-and-effect."
A member of the Russian delegation, speaking on condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the Russians, said Moscow's final position on the question of imposing further sanctions would be determined, to a large extent, by Medvedev's consultations here.
The U.S. and Russia are among six countries that will hold talks in Europe next week with Iran over its nuclear ambitions. Obama wants to reserve the possibility of pursuing tougher sanctions if those meetings lead to no restraint by Iran in the weeks ahead. Russia, which has strong economic ties with Tehran, has stood in the way of stronger action against Iran in the past.
In remarks to reporters with Medvedev at his side, Obama said both agree that negotiations with Iran are still the best approach.
"We also both agree that if Iran does not respond to serious negotiations and resolve this issue in a way that assures the international community that it's meeting its commitments, and is not developing nuclear weapons, then we will have to take additional actions and that sanctions, serious additional sanctions, remain a possibility," Obama said.
Medvedev told reporters that the intent is to move Iran in the right direction and to ensure that it does not obtain nuclear weapons.
"Sanctions rarely lead to productive results but in some cases are inevitable," he said through an interpreter.
Medvedev also mentioned that his government welcomed Obama's decision last week to scrap a Bush administration plan for a missile defense system to be based in Poland and the Czech Republic. He gave no indication that his remark about the sanctions on Iran was a diplomatic payoff for Obama's missile defense move.
In his address to the U.N. General Assembly earlier Wednesday, Obama stuck to his two-pronged approach to Iran — acknowledging its right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy while warning of unspecified penalties if it veers onto the weapons path.
"We must insist that the future not belong to fear," he said.