MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia criticised on Tuesday the release of information in a U.N. watchdog report pointing to Iranian work on designing an atom bomb, saying it would dim hopes for dialogue with Tehran and could be meant to scuttle chances for a diplomatic solution.
In a sharply worded statement, the Foreign Ministry said the International Atomic Energy Agency report had turned into a "source of a new increase in tension" over the programme even before its release.
"We have serious doubts about the justification for steps to reveal contents of the report to a broad public, primarily because it is precisely now that certain chances for the renewal of dialogue between the 'sextet' of international mediators and Tehran have begun to appear," the ministry said.
Russia is a partner with the United States, Britain, France and Germany as well as China in a group spearheading global diplomatic efforts to ensure Iran does not develop nuclear weapons, but it has repeatedly warned the West that too much pressure on Tehran will dangerously deepen the confrontation.
In its most detailed report ever pointing to apparent military dimensions to Iran's nuclear programme, the IAEA said Iran has sought to develop a nuclear weapon design and conducted other research and testing relevant for such weapons.
Russia said time was needed to study the report and emphasised it would not yet comment on the content.
"The analysis must take place in a calm atmosphere, since it is important to determine whether some new, reliable evidence strengthening suspicions of a military element in Iran's nuclear programme has really appeared, or whether we are talking about an intentional -- and counterproductive -- whipping up of emotions," the ministry said.
The United States and its allies are expected to use the report to bolster their case for more punitive sanctions on Iran. But the tone of the Russian statement suggested its release could hurt that cause rather than helping it.
"Today, as never before, it is important to keep public steps in line with the interests of progress toward a political and diplomatic resolution," the ministry said.
It suggested the release of information from the report was driven by "destructive logic" aimed at the "intentional demolition of the political-diplomatic process."
A permanent U.N. Security Council member with veto power, Russia has grudgingly supported four previous rounds of sanctions against Iran. But Russian officials have said in recent months that sanctions had exhausted their potential to resolve an eight-year standoff over Tehran's nuclear programme.
Russia, which wants to avoid ruining its relations with Iran while also playing up its importance to the West in diplomacy, is calling for a step-by-step process under which the existing sanctions would be eased in return for actions by Iran to prove its nuclear programme is purely peaceful.
The IAEA report was preceded by Israeli media speculation of military strikes against Iranian nuclear sites -- something that Russia, which has close commercial ties with Iran and has built its first nuclear power plant, has adamantly opposed.
At a news conference in Berlin on Tuesday, President Dmitry Medvedev said "militarist statements to the effect that Israel or other countries use force against Iran or any other country in the Middle East" represented "very dangerous rhetoric".
Turning to reports that Iran received assistance form a former Soviet weapons scientist to overcome technical hurdles in mastering the critical steps needed to build nuclear weapons, the Foreign Ministry said Russia had long ago provided the IAEA with "all the necessary clarifications" on the issue and that recent reports contained nothing new.
Reporting by Steve Gutterman; Editing by Mark Heinrich