Reuters: China has agreed to serious negotiations with Western powers about sanctions on Iran, while Tehran's top nuclear negotiator was in Beijing on Thursday to discuss the diplomatic showdown. By Louis Charbonneau and Chris Buckley
UNITED NATIONS/BEIJING (Reuters) – China has agreed to serious negotiations with Western powers about sanctions on Iran, while Tehran's top nuclear negotiator was in Beijing on Thursday to discuss the diplomatic showdown.
The United States' ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, said on Wednesday that her government, and France, Russia and Germany had reached agreement with China to begin putting together a proposed U.N. Security Council resolution that would impose new sanctions on Iran.
The agreement marked a big shift by Beijing after months of fending off Western nations' demands to raise pressure on Tehran, which they say is seeking the means to assemble nuclear weapons. Iran says its nuclear activities are peaceful.
The accord could also help ease tensions with Washington on a much wider range of issues, from China's currency to U.S. weapons sales to self-ruled Taiwan and Internet censorship.
"China has agreed to sit down and begin serious negotiations here in New York with the others in the (group of six) … as a first step toward getting the entire Security Council on board with a tough sanctions regime against Iran," Rice said in an interview on CNN.
"This is progress, but the negotiations have yet to begin in earnest."
China has long been reluctant to back new sanctions on Iran, a big supplier of oil, and Rice stressed that the proposed resolution has yet to be hammered out.
As one of the five permanent members of the Security Council, China has the power to veto any resolution. But Beijing appears to be losing patience with Iran.
"Sanctions now appear to be a foregone conclusion. The likelihood of the resolution passing in the Security Council is high," said Jin Liangxiang, a Middle East specialist at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies.
Underscoring Beijing's importance in the accelerating negotiations, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili arrived there on Thursday for talks.
The Iranian embassy in Beijing did not give details of Jalili's itinerary in Beijing, where he was invited by Dai Bingguo, a senior Chinese diplomat who serves as a State Councilor advising leaders on foreign policy.
President Barack Obama said on Tuesday that he wants a new Iran sanctions resolution adopted within weeks.
The Western powers in the group hope to organize a meeting of ambassadors of the six powers in New York in the coming days to get the process of drafting a sanctions resolution going, diplomats told Reuters.
They said the basis for negotiations will be a U.S. proposal agreed with its European allies and passed on to Russia and China a month ago.
NEGOTIATIONS COULD DRAG ON FOR MONTHS
Moscow, like Beijing, reluctantly backed three rounds of U.N. sanctions against Tehran for refusing to halt uranium enrichment as demanded by five Security Council resolutions.
Iran rejects Western charges that its atomic program is aimed at developing bombs and says enrichment is a sovereign right.
Despite urging from Russia and China, Iran has rejected a U.N.-backed nuclear fuel offer that would have moved Tehran's low-enriched uranium stocks to abroad to process it into fuel for an aging research reactor that produces medical isotopes.
Although the four Western powers would like a resolution to be adopted next month, diplomats say the negotiation process could drag on at least until June as China and Russia work hard to dilute any proposed punitive steps.
The U.S.-drafted sanctions proposal would expand an existing U.N. blacklist, with a new focus on Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps members and firms it controls.
A French call for energy-sector sanctions was left out of the U.S. draft, as was a proposed ban on transactions linked to Iran's central bank, diplomats said.
Jin, the Shanghai-based expert, said the sanctions would "hit decision-makers and interests in Iran," but were unlikely to affect seriously China's economies ties.
(Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Jan Dahinten)