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China closer to supporting US on Iran - diplomat
Updated: 2005-11-24 11:50

Washington and its European allies, in a diplomatic coup, are gradually enlisting Chinese support on how to deal with Iran and its suspicious nuclear activities, diplomats and officials said Wednesday.

Beijing's backing before a key meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency on Thursday adds additional clout to an ambitious international Iran strategy that has recently seen Russia join the Americans and Europeans in pressuring Iran to give up technology that could make nuclear arms.

For months, Iran has relied on Beijing and Moscow to fend off a U.S.-backed push to have it hauled before the U.N. Security Council. While the Americans and Europeans have opted not to lobby for referral at the meeting of the 35-nation IAEA board, they could resume their efforts at a later session if they judge that the Russians, Chinese and other key nations will not stand in their way.

A European official told The Associated Press that "the Chinese are very, very constructive and on board with the (U.S.)-European position" — engaging Iran on giving up uranium enrichment, while indirectly keeping the possibility of Security Council action alive.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the strategy on how to contain Iran on the nuclear front is confidential, was summing up a readout of a high-level London meeting Friday.

A U.S. official suggested the Americans had started sharing intelligence on Iran's nuclear program with Beijing. While still opposed to Security Council referral, the Chinese were "moving closer to the European and U.S. position," he said.

The London meeting was officially billed as a session on Iran attended by U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns and senior officials from France, Britain and Germany — nations that have taken the lead in recent months in negotiating with Iran on renouncing its enrichment ambitions.

But Burns later acknowledged that the Russians and Chinese were also present, and the diplomats and officials said that South Africa and Brazil also attended.

Those key nonaligned IAEA board members also have opposed past moves to have Iran hauled before the Security Council. Their presence in London suggested a growing willingness on the part of referral opponents to listen to the U.S.-European strategy.

Just a few days earlier, US President Bush met with Chinese leaders in Beijing for talks that touched on Iran and other international trouble spots.

The main issue of international concern is Iran's refusal to give up its right to enrichment, which can be used to generate power but also to make weapons-grade material for nuclear warheads. Iran says it wants only to make fuel, but international concern is growing that the program could be misused.

A plan floated in recent weeks foresees moving any Iranian enrichment plan to Russia. There, in theory, Moscow would supervise the process to make sure enrichment is only to fuel levels.

But Iran insists it wants to master the complete fuel cycle domestically. Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki told reporters in Tehran on Wednesday that, while his country was willing to resume formal talks with key European powers on its nuclear program, "naturally we aim to have enrichment on Iran's territory."

Currently, Iran's enrichment program is frozen. But negotiations between Iran and France, Britain and Germany — the so-called "EU-3" — broke off in August after Iran restarted a linked activity — the conversion of raw uranium into the gas that is used as the feed stock in enrichment.

While the Americans and Europeans publicly insist they want a negotiated solution with Iran on enrichment, they have acknowledged privately that they would expect additional support from nations now opposed to Security Council referral if Tehran continues to dig in its heels.

Looking ahead to the board meeting, diplomats in Vienna said the European Union would likely allude to the threat of referral in a statement urging Iran to return to talks, accept moving enrichment to Russia and end foot-dragging that has hampered IAEA inspectors probing Iran's nuclear activities.

Among new revelations of concern contained in a report drawn up for the board meeting by IAEA head Mohamed ElBaradei is a finding showing the Iranians in possession of what appeared to be drawings of the core of an atomic warhead.

Russia, Iran's key partner in building Tehran's first nuclear power plant, and China, a longtime trading partner and political backer, have considerable clout with Tehran. As veto-wielding members of the Security Council, they are also crucial players if Iran is referred to the U.N. highest decision-making body for possible sanctions.

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