Reporting from Washington and Moscow — U.S. and European officials considering new sanctions against Iran have decided to set aside some of the harshest of the measures as they seek broader international agreement in United Nations Security Council negotiations, said diplomats involved in the talks.
In particular, U.S. officials and their allies have decided to drop any attempt to impose a ban on the export or import of refined petroleum products, concluding that such a measure would be rejected by Russia, China and possibly other members of the Security Council, the diplomats said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Though such a step could put enormous pressure on the Iranian economy, the proposal also would divide global leaders, they said.
Sanction proposals are under review by the Security Council members, who hope that a fourth round of measures will persuade Iran to halt a nuclear program that U.S. officials and others allege is aimed at building a nuclear weapon.
Iranian officials insist that their nuclear effort is entirely peaceful.
The U.S. and its allies have discussed sanctions that would further restrict Iranian access to the international financial system, insurance services and global shipping. The measures are expected to focus on the activities of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, the military service that dominates the economy and is involved in many commercial sectors.
This week, U.S., British, French and German officials joined Russian and Chinese diplomats in debating proposals for sanctions. Foreign ministry officials from the six countries took part in a conference call Wednesday.
China's involvement, for the first time in many weeks, buoyed Western officials.
"We are at a point in bringing the international community along . . . that we've never been at," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said. However, Gibbs would not discuss reports that U.S. and allied officials had reduced the intensity of sanctions to broaden international support.
Some Israeli officials have pushed for limits on imports and exports of petroleum, arguing that they are a powerful point of leverage.
In Washington, Congress has voted to constrain Iran's imports by sanctioning countries that sell refined petroleum to the country.
Individual countries or blocs could still impose restrictions on imports or exports to Iran after the new U.N. sanctions are passed, diplomats say.
Diplomats said their goal in the new round of sanctions is to build broad support in the Security Council, adding that they may be willing to accept weaker sanctions, if necessary, to do that.
A senior U.S. official said the petroleum ban has other drawbacks. It could be subverted, and it would strike broadly at the Iranian population when the U.S. has been hoping to focus the economic punishment on the Iranian leadership and not ordinary Iranians.
Moscow appeared to be sending signals of possible cooperation Thursday, when two senior officials raised the possibility of sanctions. But despite the hints, Russia's stated policy toward Iran hasn't shifted for months.
In a briefing with reporters in Moscow, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko said Russia had not ruled out sanctions against Iran but preferred to see a diplomatic solution. This has long been Moscow's position.
Russia's deputy foreign minister also spoke of sanctions Thursday, telling reporters that only limited sanctions may be acceptable to Moscow.
"It is important for these sanctions to be well-focused and exact, if we make a decision on them, and they must not be a method of punishing the whole country or its people," Sergei Ryabkov said in remarks reported by Interfax news agency.
"Regardless of how the situation develops concerning this new resolution, it would be wrong to wind down a search for a diplomatic solution."