China on Thursday would not confirm U.S. reports that it had dropped its opposition to possible new U.N. sanctions against Iran, as Tehran’s top nuclear negotiator met with senior officials in Beijing.
China has veto power in the U.N. Security Council, and changing its position on sanctions would be key to passing a resolution against Iran, which is suspected of developing nuclear weapons. Tehran says its nuclear programme is for peaceful power generation.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang would not confirm reports that China was willing to consider new sanctions, saying only that it was “concerned about the current situation.”
“We will strengthen communication with other parties and engage all parties to promote a proper resolution by diplomatic means,” he said at a regularly scheduled briefing, repeating Beijing’s long-time stance of opposing sanctions.
The Iranian nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, met with Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi on Thursday. “Your visit this time is very important. We attach great importance to China’s relations with Iran,” Mr. Yang told Mr. Jalili before their formal meeting.
Just after arriving in Beijing, Mr. Jalili told reporters, “The relationship between Iran and China is very important, and it is very important for our two countries to cooperate on all the issues.”
China depends on oil— and gas—rich Iran for 11 percent of its energy needs and last year became Tehran’s biggest trading partner, according to Iranian figures.
China traditionally opposes sanctions. Although it went along with three earlier U.N. sanctions resolutions against Iran, it has been a vocal opponent of a fourth round, insisting that further negotiations with Tehran were needed.
But U.S. officials say a Chinese representative made a commitment in a phone call on Wednesday with officials of the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany to discuss the specifics of a potential Security Council resolution, and that on that basis the U.S. would press ahead with an effort to pass such a measure. The officials cautioned that this does not mean there is a full consensus yet on U.N. sanctions. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the diplomatic talks were ongoing.
“China has agreed to sit down and begin serious negotiations here in New York ... as a first step toward getting the entire U.N. Security Council on board with a tough sanctions regime against Iran,” Susan Rice, the American ambassador to the U.N., told CNN.
Mr. Qin confirmed that China participated in the conference call.
China opposes nuclear weapons for Iran but says it should be allowed to have a civilian nuclear energy programme.
Mr. Qin said any country that has a nuclear programme - even a peaceful one - should be subject to supervision by the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency “so as to ensure the programme is for a peaceful purpose.”
The Obama administration is hoping to get a U.N. resolution on Iran passed by the end of April.
While the details of the possible sanctions remain under discussion, proposals reportedly have included an arms embargo and a ban on new Iranian banks overseas and foreign banks in Iran.
“Of course Iran would be anxious right now,” said Yao Jide, an Iran expert at Yunnan University’s School of International Relations in southern China. “China will take this opportunity to urge Iran to make transparent its work on the program as bound by the treaties of the IAEA.”
Mr. Yao doubted that Iran’s envoy could take a tough stance during his talks in Beijing.
“There’s nothing that they can use to pressure China. China’s energy programmes have only started in Iran. And China has many programs in Iraq. There are many choices for China. And Iran knows perfectly well that it’s not like they are the only oil supplier for China.”