By Timothy Heritage and Guy Faulconbridge
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia is concerned that the Arab Spring revolutions could sow further turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa by provoking a potentially catastrophic rift between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.
In written answers to Reuters, Lavrov said the events in the region were still unfolding and cautioned that social, political and religious tensions showed signs of increasing.
"There are serious fears about the possible emergence of new zones of instability in the region that could become potential sources of challenges to international stability and security," Lavrov said.
Such threats, he said, included the spread of terrorism, contraband weapons, the narcotics business, illegal immigration and especially the use of religion to ratchet up tensions.
"Attempts to bring the religious factor into regional confrontations are especially troubling," said Lavrov, the longest serving Russian foreign minister since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
"If there were an open rift between Sunnis and Shi'ites - and such a threat is fully realistic - then the consequences could be catastrophic."
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has warned the West that meddling in rebellions across the Arab world risks bringing radical Islamists to power and undermining long-term stability in the world's biggest oil-producing region.
Lavrov, 61, is an eloquent face of Putin's assertive foreign policy which is aimed at restoring Russia's global clout as the United States, China and the European Union try to expand their influence.
"We understand that not everyone likes a strong, confident Russia," he said. "But for us external independence is a key question."
FOCUS ON SYRIA
Critics say Moscow's reaction to the relatively bloodless revolutions of Tunisia and Egypt was sometimes slow, while Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev differed in public over how to react to Western military intervention in Libya.
Russia has now shifted its focus to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has cracked down on protests against his rule. Thousands of people have been killed in the clampdown and in fighting between mutinous troops and security forces.
Moscow offered a new United Nations Security Council resolution on Syria this month to try to look less recalcitrant, without giving ground on its opposition to sanctions or foreign military interference.
Lavrov urged an end to violence in Syria but said the West should not ignore the danger posed by what he called extremist groups in the country.
"If you close your eyes to this part of the truth, the situation could disintegrate to what we saw in Libya," Lavrov said. "There, Western countries used the slogan of protecting civilians to overthrow the regime of M. (Muammar) Gaddafi."
"We categorically cannot agree with the calls of some of our partners to use the 'Libyan precedent' to resolve other conflicts," Lavrov said.
He said the patience and compromise shown by all sides involved in the conflict in Yemen, where a pact has been agreed for a peaceful power transition, was an example to follow.
"If you need a model to follow, it is without doubt the experience of the way the internal political crisis was resolved in Yemen, where all the external players worked extremely patiently and persistently with all the sides, without ultimatums, encouraging them to compromise," he said.
"That is how to act in Syria's case."
RELATIONS WITH UNITED STATES
Putin's criticism of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for questioning the validity of Russia's parliamentary election on December 4 has prompted some policy experts to suggest the "reset" in relations with the United States since Barack Obama became president is under threat.
Putin, who faces demonstrations by protesters demanding the election be rerun as he prepares to return to Russia's presidency next year, also accused Clinton of encouraging "mercenary" Kremlin opponents.
Lavrov said much had been done in the last few years to strengthen relations with the United States and that dialogue had become more "pragmatic" with Moscow's former Cold War enemy.
But differences remain over a proposed U.S. missile shield in Europe, which Washington says is meant to protect against Iran but Moscow sees as a threat to its security.
"Of course we face a difficult search for acceptable outcomes on sensitive matters, above all on anti-missile defense," Lavrov said.
"We have not yet managed to have a constructive dialogue, and the creation of a NATO anti-missile system according to the American plan is going full-steam ahead without our legitimate concerns being taken into account."
Russia, he said, was ready to look objectively at even the most difficult questions and added: "We hope that our American partners will take the same reasonable and responsible approach."
Washington helped pave the way to Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization, which was approved by the global trading body this month.
Lavrov said he hoped WTO entry would help develop economic ties with the United States but added that for this to happen it was vital for the U.S. Congress to repeal the Jackson-Vanik amendment, a 1974 provision linking trade to emigration rights for Soviet Jews.
(Editing by Alistair Lyon)