WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- Major powers have begun negotiations for a fourth round of UN sanctions against Iran to curb its nuclear program, but Russia and China were expected to strongly resist more punitive measures.
Senior officials from France, Britain, Germany, and the United States held a private session at the State Department early on September 19 to discuss both Iran and Georgia, which Russia invaded last month.
Highlighting divergent views, China and Russia were excluded from the morning talks but were set to join other permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany over lunch to discuss Iran, U.S. officials and diplomats said.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack played down expectations for the Washington meetings, indicating agreement was still a ways off, and urged Russia to put aside tensions over Georgia and work for a new sanctions resolution.
"I would not set expectations high at all for this meeting actually producing a definitive answer on the substance or timing of a resolution," McCormack told reporters.
European and U.S. officials were unsure whether tensions with Russia over Georgia would delay or even scupper the imposition of more UN sanctions against Iran, which argues its nuclear program is intended to generate more power and not to build an nuclear weapon as suspected by the West.
Moscow is at odds with Western powers over its actions in Georgia and relations with the United States, in particular, are at their lowest level since the Cold War ended.
"The Russians have always been very reluctant and usually every resolution of sanctions is an ordeal -- three or four months of negotiations, comma, by comma. I guess it will be more or less the same," said a senior European official.
"I think the big problems will also be with China," he added. "This resolution, if and when we get it, will be very weak," he added.
World powers have offered a package of trade and other incentives if Iran suspends uranium enrichment. So far, Iran has ignored the offer.
Earlier this week, the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency said in a report that Iranian stonewalling had brought to a standstill its investigation into whether Iran had covertly researched ways to make an atomic bomb.
Iran has withstood three rounds of limited UN sanctions imposed so far and Iran's President Mahmud Ahmadinejad reiterated on September 18 that Tehran would not suspend its uranium-enrichment program and brushed aside the threat of more sanctions.
With four months left in office, the Bush administration's leverage is slipping on the Iran dossier, experts say, and Tehran, Russia, and China are all taking this into account.
"My guess is that the sanctions will be watered down and there is every reason for the Russians to drag this out so that the new administration has to come to them," said Gary Samore of the Council on Foreign Relations.
"Even without Georgia, the Russians and the Chinese had the plan to run out the clock on the Bush administration."