Beijing inches towards tougher stance on Iran

By Harvey Morris at the United Nations, Daniel Dombey in Washington and Mure Dickie in Beijing

Published: November 8 2007 17:50 | Last updated: November 8 2007 17:50

China on Thursday called on Iran to “respond positively” to international concerns about its nuclear programme, a day after Tehran declared it had no need to account for itself to “bad tempered” foreign countries.

Beijing’s measured strengt­hening of diplomatic language followed increased pressure from fellow members of the United Nations Security Council to back new sanctions against Iran.

Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, Iran’s president, on Wednesday defiantly ruled out any move to rein in its nuclear programme.

“We have been paying close attention to developments and ask the Iranian side to positively respond to and take seriously the concerns and expressions of international society,” Liu Jianchao, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said in Beijing. China has previously been less direct, with Wen Jiabao, the premier, saying merely that he “hoped” Iran would respond positively to concern.

Mr Liu did not comment on whether China might re­think its position on a possible third round of UN sanctions to force Tehran to disclose details of its nuclear programme and to ensure it does not achieve the capability to produce a nuclear bomb. China has previously balked at measures that would have an impact on bilateral trade, which could reach $20bn this year.

A decision on further sanctions will depend on assessments due this month from the Inter­national Atomic Energy Agency and the European Union.

If the reports are negative, the US, Britain and France are poised to push for harsher measures. Russia is seen by its western partners as likely to come into line if its own initiative fails.

China, however, has been resisting further measures against a state that represents an increasingly important source of its oil and gas supplies and a growing market for its exports.

“We are disappointed by the lack of co-operation by China on a third Security Council resolution,” Nicholas Burns, US undersecretary of state, said last week. “We don’t think that China is moving with us.”

Mr Burns highlighted Beijing’s burgeoning trade with Iran at a time when its Security Council partners were decreasing ties.

China vehemently rejects the western criticism. “We have the same goals, that Iran should not have nuclear weapons,” Zhou Wenzhong, China’s ambassador to the US, said this week.

China and Russia distrust the use of sanctions but western diplomats said Beijing’s reluctance did not appear to be driven by ideology. They acknowledge that Beijing has no desire to see a nuclear-armed Iran. However, Sino-Iranian trade might suffer if sanctions obliged countries to hinder companies doing business with Tehran, they said.

US officials argue that China has not measured up to its status as a rising power and that Beijing risks being bracketed with Iran in a region where Tehran is increasingly distrusted. The Chinese economy would be one of the principal victims if oil prices rose further because of a failure to resolve the nuclear dispute, they say.

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