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China joins Russia in Iran diplomacy
Updated: 2006-02-24 07:28

China joined Russia on Thursday in diplomatic efforts to ease a crisis over Iran's nuclear work before a U.N. atomic watchdog meeting and avert any sanctions.

Moscow and Beijing do not want an International Atomic Energy Agency board meeting on March 6 to precipitate moves in the U.N. Security Council for sanctions against Tehran.

The board will hear a crucial IAEA report dealing with suspicions Iran is secretly seeking atom bombs. The report is likely to influence any future council action. Russia and China are keen to coax Iran into a compromise before then.

Russia began negotiations with Iran this week on its idea to enrich uranium for Tehran, which could placate Western powers by effectively denying the Islamic Republic the nuclear fuel technology required for building bombs.

But Iran, while sounding more receptive to an enrichment joint venture with Russia since the IAEA reported it to the Security Council on February 4, insists on a right to uranium enrichment at home, where it is pursuing a pilot project.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry said Vice Foreign Minister Lu Guozeng, a Middle East specialist, would start three days of talks in Tehran on Friday on defusing the standoff between Iran and the United States and its European Union allies.

"China will explore with Iran how to ease the crisis under present circumstances and how to take practical measures to stop the problem from worsening," ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao told a news briefing.

Russia and China fear steps toward sanctions will only worsen the crisis by driving Iran into a corner and imperiling a U.N. inspections regime that Tehran has promised to retain.

But Washington says Iran must pay a serious price if it does not act soon to clear up suspicions about its atomic ambitions.

Iran says its nuclear industry will only be used to generate electricity, not to make bombs.


Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing appealed on Wednesday to the West to be patient and flexible in the hope that Iran and the three EU powers which froze negotiations in anger at Tehran's resumption of enrichment work could revive dialogue.

"The days before the March 6 meeting of the IAEA are crucial," Xinhua news agency quoted Li as saying after meeting visiting German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, whose country along with Britain and France form the EU trio.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said on Thursday Tehran was seriously considering Russia's proposal but needs to discuss further the timing and place for any enrichment.

Discussions between Iran and Russia over the offer ended on Tuesday with an agreement to continue talks this week during a visit to Tehran by the head of Moscow's nuclear agency.

"There must be some new elements in that proposal. If you ask about the main elements I will tell you -- the timing and place," Mottaki told reporters during a visit to Jakarta.

Iran's atomic energy commission chief has asked Russia to specify whether its plan would allow Iranian scientists to take part, or would limit Tehran's role to a financial stake, which he said would be unacceptable.

The main sticking point seems to be Russia's condition that Iran re-suspend enrichment-related activity at its underground Natanz plant resumed last month after a 2 1/2-year moratorium agreed during talks with the EU trio.

"The negotiations with Iran are not easy but we are counting on reaching a positive result. We are not losing optimism," Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Wednesday.

Washington wants a Security Council debate on sanctions but faces resistance from Russia and China, which are among the five permanent members of the top world body and have veto power.

"We believe that the Security Council is not a tool for specific countries to use it against other independent countries. We believe the time for tough language is over. The time for a unilateral approach is over," Mottaki said.

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