Russia warned on Wednesday that an attack on Iran would be a "catastrophe" for the region and said world powers should adopt a policy of non-intervention in the Middle East and North Africa.
“It is impossible to list all the consequences [of an attack],” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in an annual address. “But I have no doubt that it would pour oil on the still smoldering fire of Sunni-Shia confrontation, which would lead to a chain reaction.”
"As for how likely such a catastrophe is, you need to ask those who constantly mention this as an option," Lavrov added. He also said that Russia would “do everything” in its power to prevent an attack on Iran.
Although Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said on Wednesday that Israel was "very far off" from taking the decision to strike Iran, Washington and Tel Aviv have refused to rule out military force against Tehran over suspicions that its nuclear program is aimed at the production of atomic weapons.
Iran, which recently began enriching uranium at an underground bunker, denies it is seeking nuclear arms and says its program is to provide peaceful civilian energy.
Lavrov also said that sanctions on Iranian oil exports being discussed by the European Union would “hurt” ordinary people and were more about stirring up unrest than preventing the spread of nuclear weapons.
"This has nothing to do with a desire to strengthen nuclear non-proliferation," he said. "It's aimed at stifling the Iranian economy and the population in the apparent hope of provoking discontent."
Sanctions would also prove “an obstacle” to the revival of a dialog between Iran and the six world powers involved in negotiations on its nuclear program, Lavrov said.
Oil exports make up some 80 percent of Iran’s foreign revenues and Tehran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, the export route for one third of global seaborne traded oil, in response to sanctions.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said such a move would provoke a response.
But analysts are doubtful Russia has the military and economic clout to play a decisive role on Iran
“Russia has practically no real influence left in the Middle East,” analyst Sergei Demidenko of the Moscow-based The Institute of Strategic Studies and Analysis told RIA Novosti. “It does not play a decisive role and we have no way of returning our Soviet-era influence.”
“Iran can not rely on Russia to defend it. The U.S. and Israel are certainly not afraid of this. Russia will definitely not go to war over Iran,” he added.
Another analyst suggested Russia’s reluctance to antagonize Iran was partly linked to fears that Tehran could finance and support the ongoing Islamist insurgency in its volatile North Caucasus region.
“No one needs an Iranian nuclear bomb…but we do not need Iran to attack Russia’s interests in the North Caucasus either,” Yevgeny Satanovsky of the Institute of Middle Eastern studies told RIA.
“It would be very easy for Iran to organize something like Hezbollah in south Lebanon on Russian territory, if Moscow supported an attack,” he said.
Lavrov also said the landmark events that swept the Middle East and North Africa last year were far from at an end, but that world powers should refrain from interference – even if developments were not always to their liking.
“The changes in the region are far from being concluded and we are witness to what is merely the start of this transition,” Sergei Lavrov told journalists.
“If we are in favor of the people of these countries determining for themselves their own futures, then we must accept their choices and not interfere in national dialogues or electoral campaigns,” he said.
Islamist parties dominated Egypt’s first parliamentary elections since last February's overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak, securing almost two-thirds of the vote between them.
But Lavrov said that the international community should seek to work with such “radical” movements and that the use of force as a means of influencing events in the region was unacceptable.
“It is important to be governed by the principles that govern doctors - ‘do no harm,’” Lavrov said.
On Syria, Lavrov said Russia would offer no explanations or justification to the U.S. for an alleged recent arms delivery to Damascus.
"We don't consider it necessary to explain or justify ourselves, as we are not violating any international agreements or any [U.N.] Security Council resolutions," Lavrov said.
“We are only dealing with Syria in those items not outlawed under international law,” he added.
Lavrov’s comments followed the arrival last week of a Russian-operated ship in Syria. An official in Cyprus, where the vessel was briefly held up, said the ship was carrying ammunition.
The United States later said it had raised the issue of the ship’s cargo with Moscow. U.S. envoy to the United Nations Susan Rice said on Tuesday that Washington had "very grave concerns about arms flows into Syria from any source."
Russia and China in October vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution that would have imposed an arms embargo on Syria. The UN says some 5,000 people have died since an uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad began in March.
Moscow has insisted, however, that violence in Syria is being instigated by both government forces and rebels and on Wednesday Lavrov repeated calls for the two sides to lay down their arms.
"Weapons are being supplied to fighters and extremists in Syria who are trying to exploit the protest movement to seize power…this is unacceptable and non-productive,” he said. "We consider necessary a halt to any form of violence in Syria, wherever it might originate, and the start of an all-inclusive national dialogue."
Lavrov also slammed unilateral sanctions imposed by the U.S. and Europe against Syria.
“Unilateral sanctions are always an undermining of collective efforts,” he said, “be they against Iran, Syria or any other country.”