Iran tour invitation 'difficult': China

Friday, January 14, 2011

BEIJING -- China said it will be “difficult” for its ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to tour Iran's nuclear facilities, potentially smoothing a source of friction ahead of President Hu Jintao's trip to Washington next week.

China has backed U.N. Security Council resolutions pressing Iran to abandon its disputed nuclear activities but China has close energy and trade ties with Iran and has opposed unilateral sanctions imposed by Europe and the United States.

“The Vienna representative is still in China right now, so it will be difficult for him to go to Iran,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at a news briefing, without elaborating.

Western diplomats had said last week that Russia and China were being actively discouraged from going on the tour as this could erode the united front between the six world powers involved in talks on Iran's disputed uranium enrichment program — the United States, China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany.

Western diplomats have described Iran's invitation as an attempt to split the six to weaken sanctions.

Iran earlier this month made the surprise invitation to ambassadors accredited to the U.N. nuclear watchdog in Vienna to visit key nuclear plants.

The United States, Britain, France and Germany were not invited. Iran did invite China and Russia, which has yet to make a public announcement.

The European Union also turned down the invitation.

The West suspects Iran's nuclear program is directed at developing bombs. Tehran says it is for peaceful energy only.

“As for the upcoming six-country and EU dialogue with Iran, China hopes this meeting will help all side to establish mutual trust, seek out consensus and make progress,” Hong said. “We would like to work with all sides to advance these efforts.”

The talks next week could be the “last chance” for the West because Tehran's atomic capability is improving, a senior Iranian official was quoted as saying.

Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Tehran's nuclear ambassador, raised the stakes for the Jan. 21-22 meeting with the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany, which want assurances that Iran is not trying to develop nuclear weapons.

Once Iran can make its own fuel for a research reactor, which it has said will happen this year, it may not return to negotiations if the talks to be held in Istanbul fail, the official IRNA news agency quoted him as saying on Wednesday.

Hong's comments come just a day after a senior Iranian official and top Chinese diplomats met to discuss Iran's nuclear program, and less than a week before Hu heads to Washington when Iran, North Korea and trade and currency disputes will be high on the agenda.

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