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Analysis: Iranian plan will put nation a step closer to having material for bomb

Ahmadinejad's expression of renewed interest in the deal undercut the U.S. push for new sanctions at the U.N. Security Council. China seized on his statement to say it demonstrated that there was still time for negotiations before new sanctions.

The Security Council has passed three rounds of sanctions against Iran for failing to halt enrichment, to little effect. U.S. officials hope a fourth resolution will provide the momentum for even tougher sanctions to be enacted by the European Union and a broad coalition that would include Asian and Middle Eastern countries.

Iran's announcement Monday elicited immediate criticism from many countries involved in talks with Iran -- but China made no immediate comment.

"The only path that is left to us at this point, it seems to me, is that pressure track, but it will require all of the international community to work together," Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Monday in Paris.

China has overtaken the European Union to become Iran's biggest trading partner, according to a new analysis this week by the Financial Times that accounted for trade between Iran and China that appears in official records as goods from the United Arab Emirates.

Correspondent Thomas Erdbrink in Tehran and staff writers Craig Whitlock, traveling with Gates, and Joby Warrick in Washington contributed to this report.

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