China to join in talks on sanctioning Iran over uranium

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By Colum Lynch
Wednesday, March 24, 2010; 6:48 PM

UNITED NATIONS -- China pledged for the first time Wednesday to join in substantive talks on sanctioning Iran for defying U.N. demands that it stop enriching uranium, according to Britain's U.N. ambassador.

Liu Zhenmin, China's newly appointed negotiator on the Iranian nuclear crisis, participated in a conference call on Iran's nuclear program Wednesday morning with the political directors from the United States, Russia, France, Britain and Germany. However, China's U.N. envoy, Li Baodong, said Beijing remains committed to resolving the nuclear standoff with Iran through negotiations.

Liu said China is prepared to begin discussions on elements of a U.S. text outlining a set of proposed sanctions against Iran, according to Security Council diplomats. "My understanding is that they have agreed to engage substantively," Britain's U.N. ambassador, Mark Lyall Grant, said.

The key U.N. powers are pursuing a dual-track policy with Iran, offering Tehran incentives to allow greater outside scrutiny of its nuclear program and threatening economic sanctions if it fails to halt enrichment activities. The U.N. Security Council has imposed sanctions on Iran three times, but Iran has refused to comply with its demands.

The Tehran government has repeatedly denied that it is developing a clandestine nuclear weapons program, saying it needs to enrich uranium for the country's civilian energy needs. Last month, the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that Iran had "not provided the necessary cooperation" required to allow the Vienna-based organization to confirm that its nuclear activities are peaceful.

China's participation in Wednesday's conference call was the most encouraging signal from Beijing yet that it is prepared to consider U.S.-backed efforts to impose sanctions to compel Iran to halt its nuclear activities. For months, China has resisted participating in nuclear talks on Iran or sent low-level diplomats to the high-level discussions.

But Security Council diplomats cautioned that any nuclear talks are likely to be protracted and that China continues to argue that negotiations, not economic sanctions, remain the best way to bring about change in Tehran. In the conference call, Liu did not agree to either a follow-up date for further nuclear talks or face-to-face talks, saying Beijing preferred telephone discussions, according to a Security Council diplomat briefed on the exchange.

Li, China's U.N. ambassador, said after Wednesday's call that Beijing is "firmly committed" to stemming the spread of nuclear weapons in Iran and elsewhere. But he added: "Appropriate solutions should be found through peace talks and negotiations. For a long time, China has been an advocate of diplomacy. Now we are working along with other members in the international community to a find peaceful solution."

To head off sanctions, China and Russia have pressed Tehran to accept a big-power proposal to swap its enriched uranium for a foreign supply of nuclear fuel -- possibly from France, Russia or Turkey -- for its medical research reactor. The proposal, which is backed by the United States, would ensure that Iran does not develop the capacity to process weapons-grade uranium.

Security Council diplomats said that although China has shown some softening of its opposition to sanctions, Russia has been taking an increasingly tough line in negotiations with the United States. Moscow has formally pledged to negotiate a sanctions resolution, but it has told the United States that it will support only narrowly focused sanctions that target Iran's nuclear program, not measures targeting the country's economy, including its energy and financial sectors.

Russia is also demanding that any sanctions resolution rule out using it as a pretext for a military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities, a Security Council diplomat said.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company

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