VIENNA (TheBlaze/AP) — U.S.-Russian tensions over Ukraine spilled over into nuclear talks with Iran Wednesday, with Moscow's chief envoy at the negotiations warning that his country may take "retaliatory measures" that could hurt attempts to persuade Tehran to cut back on programs that could make atomic arms. That comes as President Obama said the United States would not be "getting into a military excursion in Ukraine."
The statement, by Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, appeared to be the most serious threat of reprisal by Moscow for Western sanctions against Russia over its annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region.
Russia is key to attempts to coax Iran into significant long-term curbs of its nuclear program in exchange for relief from U.N. and other sanctions. Iran insists it does not want nuclear arms but is seeking a deal that will result in full sanctions relief.
The Russian threat, hours after the latest negotiating round ended, appeared to catch Washington off guard.
NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 06: The United States' Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, listens while the Russian Ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, speaks to the media after a United Nations Security Council meeting regarding the on-going turmoil in Ukraine on March 6, 2014 in New York City. Russian forces have occupied the Crimean peninsula of Ukraine, causing an international uproar from many western nations. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
In an earlier UN security council meeting, things got tense.
At the council, Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin was once again alone in defending his country's actions in Crimea.
He began his speech by celebrating the treaty signed a day earlier by Russian President Vladimir Putin declaring Crimea part of Russia, saying it honored the will of the Crimean people and complied with international law.
"Yesterday, something truly historic happened," Churkin declared. "A historic injustice has been righted."
U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power said the United States rejects "Russia's military intervention and land grab in Crimea."
She warned that the U.S. and its allies, who imposed sanctions on Russia two days ago, "are prepared to take additional steps if Russian aggression or Russian provocations continue."
Power also compared Russia's takeover of Crimea to theft. "A thief can steal property, but that does not confer the right of ownership on the thief," she said.
The Russian ambassador shot back: "It is simply unacceptable to listen to these insults addressed to our country."
He added, "If the delegation of the United States of America expects our cooperation in the Security Council on other issues, then Mrs. Power must understand this quite clearly." By then, Power had left the meeting to her deputy.
[sharequote align="center"]Russian Amb.: "It is simply unacceptable to listen to these insults addressed to our country."[/sharequote]
Days ahead of the meeting, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki had said she expects Russia to "remain an active partner" in the talks. During the two-day talks, Western officials involved described Russia's participation as constructive and unchanged by the Ukraine tensions.
Ryabkov was cited by the Interfax news agency as saying Russia may feel compelled to respond to U.S. and European Union actions. He said Russia considers "reunification" with Crimea more important than the developments surrounding Iran's nuclear program.
"We wouldn't like to use these talks as an element of the game of raising the stakes taking into account the sentiments in some European capitals, Brussels and Washington," Ryabkov was quoted as saying. "But if they force us into that, we will take retaliatory measures here as well."
Russia and the U.S. often hold different positions about what Iran needs to do to banish fears about its nuclear activities. That includes uranium enrichment, which Iran says it needs to make reactor fuel — but which can also manufacture fissile warhead material.
Ahead of the most recent talks, diplomats told The Associated Press that Moscow was ready to accept a more robust Iranian enrichment program than Washington.
But American officials have always said that Russia and the United States are united in their goal of banishing the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran, even if they differ on how to get there.
Iran has often tried to exploit U.S.-Russian differences and Ryabkov's comments could embolden it to resist significant nuclear cutbacks.
China usually supports Russia at the negotiations but the United States, Britain, France and Germany are unlikely to accept a lenient deal.
At worst, the talks could fall apart. That could embolden Israel to make good on threats to attack Iran's nuclear facilities and draw the United States into any military confrontation.
The Russian comments overshadowed signs that Iran may be ready to compromise.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had suggested earlier Wednesday his country was ready eliminate fears that a reactor it is building at Arak could be used to make atomic arms.
Zarif implied that Iran was open to re-engineering the facility to one that would produce less plutonium, according to the semi-official Fars news agency. Like enriched uranium, plutonium can be used to arm nuclear warheads.
While Iran insists on completing and running its nuclear reactor, "any proliferation concerns" linked to it "have to be removed," he was quoted as saying.
Meanwhile, in an interview with a San Diego news station, President Obama assured the United States would not be getting involved in a "military excursion" in Ukraine:
Ischachenkov reported from Moscow. Margaret Childs in Vienna and Associated Press writer Ali Akbar Dareini in Tehran contributed to this report.