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UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The United States, Britain and France warned Iran on Thursday that it may face new sanctions over its nuclear program, but Russia and China hinted that they were not convinced more punitive steps were needed.
The exchange of views during a U.N. Security Council debate on Iran showed how the Western powers' desire to ratchet up the pressure on an increasingly defiant Tehran over its atomic ambitions might face tough resistance from Moscow and Beijing.
"If it continues to refuse the slightest confidence measures, to refuse dialogue, transparency ... we must draw all of the necessary conclusions and that means that we must move on to a new resolution involving sanctions," French U.N. Ambassador Gerard Araud told the council.
"There is no longer any reason to wait," he said.
The French envoy later told reporters that Paris was ready to begin drafting a resolution soon.
"We make a last call to the Islamic Republic of Iran to respond to our offer of negotiation," Araud said. "If Iran doesn't do it on the short term, France will propose a new resolution of sanctions."
U.N. diplomats have said that senior officials from the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China -- the six powers spearheading efforts to persuade Iran to halt enrichment -- might meet as early as next week to discuss Tehran, which the West suspects is pursuing nuclear weapons.
Iran rejects the allegations, along with U.N. demands that it suspend a program it says is intended solely for the peaceful generation of electricity. But Western officials say recent revelations about a previously hidden uranium enrichment plant in Iran have made Tehran's denials less credible.
Russia's Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko suggested that Moscow was not ready to begin drafting a fourth U.N. sanctions resolution to punish Tehran for refusing to suspend its uranium enrichment program.
"This language of sanctions, it is not our language. It has already been said many times," Nesterenko told reporters in Moscow, stressing that Moscow's position had not changed.
He said Moscow favored "using political and diplomatic methods to resolve all emerging problems."
The United States said again that Tehran might have to face new sanctions but did not touch on the question of when work on a new sanctions resolution should begin.
"Should Iran continue to fail to meet its obligations, the international community will have to consider further actions," U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice told the council.
Asked how long the United States would wait, Rice told reporters, "The time is short."
In New York, Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin and Chinese Ambassador Zhang Yesui both called for restraint and patience. Referring to the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency in Vienna, Zhang said Beijing hoped Iran would "strengthen dialogue and cooperation with the IAEA."
The Chinese envoy added that China remained committed to negotiations with Tehran and there was still room for talks. Neither he nor Churkin mentioned the word "sanctions."
Rice joined other council members in condemning recent seizures of Iranian arms shipments en route to Syria as "serious" violations of a U.N. arms embargo on Tehran. She said that three such shipments had been intercepted this year.
British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant told reporters that the six powers would base a decision on whether to press for a new round of U.N. sanctions on an assessment of Tehran's nuclear program and its response to their offer of economic and political incentives in exchange for an enrichment suspension.
Lyall Grant said he expected that assessment by the end of the year and a decision on how to proceed early next year.
Additional reporting by Patrick Worsnip at the United Nations and Conor Sweeney in Moscow, editing by Howard Goller