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China joins Iran sanctions talks

China joins Iran sanctions talks

China committed today for the first time to engage in substantive talks on a U.S.-backed initiative to sanction Iran for defying U.N. demands to halt its enrichment of uranium, according to Britain’s U.N. ambassador. But diplomats here predicted at least several weeks of further talks before the council will adopt sanctions on Iran.

Liu Zhenmin, China’s newly appointed negotiator on the Iranian nuclear crisis (shown at right), 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.

Liu pledged Beijing is prepared to begin discussions on elements of a U.S. text outlining a set of proposed sanctions against Iran. “My understanding is that they have agreed to engage substantively,” said Britain’s U.N. ambassador Mark Lyall Grant.

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

Iran has repeatedly denied that it is developing a clandestine nuclear weapons program, saying that it needs to enrich uranium to power a civilian nuclear energy program. In February, the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that Iran has “not provided the necessary cooperation” required to allow the Vienna-based agency to confirm that Iran’s nuclear activities are indeed peaceful.

China’s participation in today’s nuclear talks provided the most encouraging signal from Beijing in months that it is prepared to at least consider U.S.-backed efforts to impose sanctions to compel Iran to halt its nuclear activities. For months, China has refused to join nuclear talks on Iran or sent low-level diplomats to participate in 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, constitute the best way to bring about change in Tehran. In this morning’s conference call, Liu did not agree to a follow-up date for further nuclear talks, and he did not agree to face-to-face talks, saying Beijing preferred to continue discussions over the telephone, according to a Security Council diplomat briefed on the discussions.

China’s U.N. ambassador Li Baodong said after this morning’s conference call that Beijing is “firmly committed” to stemming the spread of nuclear weapons in Iran and elsewhere. But he emphasized the Chinese view that “appropriate solutions should be found through peace talks and negotiations.”

In an effort 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 Washington, would ensure that Iran does not develop the capacity to process weapons-grade uranium.

Security Council diplomats said that while China has shown signs of softening its opposition to U.N. sanctions, Russia had 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 would only support narrowly focused sanctions that target Iran’s nuclear program.

Moscow has made it clear that it will not agree to support wider sanctions aimed at harming Iran’s economy, including proposals to sanctions Iran’s energy sector and financial sector, according to a council diplomat. Russia is also demanding that any sanctions resolution explicitly rule out the possibility it could be used as a pretext for a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, the diplomat said.