By Steve Gutterman
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia pressed its case against new sanctions over Iran's nuclear program on Friday, saying an European Union ban on purchasing Iranian oil would end up hurting the bloc's member countries.
"The European Union is rejecting purchases of Iranian oil, even though very many EU countries depend on this oil," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in an interview on state-run Rossiya 24 television.
"One can say, of course, that the deficit will be covered, but (some) refineries are geared specifically to Iranian oil ... and readjusting them will demand substantial investments that the EU can hardly afford now," he said.
Russia has supported four rounds of U.N. Security Council sanctions over Iran's nuclear program, which Western nations fear is aimed at developing nuclear weapons and Tehran says is purely peaceful.
But Lavrov reiterated Moscow's opposition to further U.N. sanctions and actions by other nations and groups, including the EU oil ban which comes into force in July.
"The unilateral sanctions to which our Western partners resort, bypassing the Security Council, only strengthen ... those in Iran who are sure the West is not interested in resolving issues linked with non-proliferation of nuclear technologies, but is interested in regime change," Lavrov said.
Speaking ahead of a second round of talks next month between Iran and six global powers - Russia, China, the United States, Britain, France and Germany - he suggested the focus should be on coaxing Tehran into cooperation with the prospect of relief from sanctions.
Russia has been calling for a "step-by-step" resolution to the dispute.
Iran should be presented with "a concrete and realistic road map, a kind of program that would be based on the principle of an action for an action," Lavrov said.
He repeated Russia's proposal that as a start, Iran could freeze the number of centrifuges for uranium enrichment at current levels, while global powers would refrain from imposing new sanctions.
The idea is that "if Iran starts steps to meet the demands of the U.N. Security Council and the International Atomic Energy Agency - let's say, not increasing the number of centrifuges - as a response, certain sanctions will also be frozen and will not be expanded," Lavrov said.
If Iran then reduced the number of centrifuges, some sanctions would be withdrawn, and eventually Iran's "uranium enrichment would be frozen for the period of negotiations" aimed to dispel all doubts about the peaceful nature of its nuclear program, he said, according to a transcript of his comments.
"And after that the freeze on enrichment would be lifted" and Iran could produce nuclear fuel for a peaceful energy program under IAEA control, he said.
Russia says the centrifuge proposal was discussed at an initial round of negotiations earlier this month. Iranian and Western officials have said little about the proposal, but EU diplomats have said the embargo is not a new sanction.
(Writing by Steve Gutterman; Editing by Andrew Heavens)