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China opposes sanctions against Iran

BEIJING—Coming to the aid of one of its major oil suppliers, China said Thursday that it opposes sanctions to resolve the global standoff with Iran over its nuclear program.

"We oppose the habitual use of sanctions, or threats of sanctions, to solve problems. This only complicates problems," Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan said.

China also expressed support for a Russian plan to have Iranian uranium ore shipped to Russia for enrichment into fuel for civilian power plants. The plan is designed to allay U.S. and European concerns that Iran is secretly enriching uranium for nuclear weapons.

Iran has latched onto the Russian proposal as a way to defuse a showdown next week in Vienna as envoys to the International Atomic Energy Agency consider referring Iran's case to the U.N. Security Council for possible punitive action. The IAEA, the United Nations' nuclear watchdog, says Iran is in violation of its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the key safeguard against the spread of nuclear arms, because it hasn't disclosed all aspects of its nuclear program.

Arriving from Moscow, Iran's top national security official whisked about Beijing to discuss the Russian proposal and gather backing for his country, the world's fourth-largest oil exporter.

"The Russian suggestion is a useful one, but it needs to be discussed more," Ali Larijani, secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, told a news conference. He said Iran wants "a more wide and general package" as part of the Russian proposal. "In this regard, it could be positive and acceptable."

Larijani, attempting to cast China as Iran's powerful partner, said the two nations hold "a common position" and "the same idea" regarding the "rights to have use of peaceful nuclear energy."

President Bush said he believes Iran should have a civilian nuclear program as long as the material used to power the plant is manufactured in Russia and delivered under IAEA supervision, and the waste from the plant is returned to Russia. "The Russians came up with the idea, and I support it," he said at a news conference in Washington on Thursday.

Under the proposal, Moscow and Tehran would establish a joint venture in Russia to produce on an industrial scale low-enriched uranium to fuel civilian power plants in Iran.

U.S. support for the Russian proposal is based on the idea that "all enrichment activities would take place on Russian soil," said a U.S. official in Washington, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

But Iran has been privately insisting that it be allowed to maintain at its Natanz research facility a "pilot plant" of 1,000 centrifuges, the high-speed devices that produce low enriched uranium for power plants and highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons, the official said. That idea is totally unacceptable, the official said.

Iran is developing uranium enrichment capabilities in what it insists is a civilian program, but it has admitted concealing its efforts from IAEA inspectors for 18 years and purchasing know-how and technology from the Pakistani-led smuggling network that supplied a bomb-making project to Libya.

The matter has dragged China into the spotlight of another nuclear arms standoff. China already is hosting six-nation talks to seek the dismantlement of a nuclear weapons program in North Korea.

China's posture on Iran is particularly sensitive because China is on the IAEA board of governors and is one of five permanent U.N. Security Council members, giving it veto power over possible sanctions against Tehran.

U.S. and European officials have said that they won't seek sanctions immediately, but that they'll ask the Security Council to demand that Tehran fully cooperate with a three-year-old IAEA effort to determine if Iran is secretly developing nuclear weapons.

China maintains vital economic ties with Iran. Chinese companies are pouring investment into the nation, and Iran is China's No. 2 foreign oil supplier, after Saudi Arabia.

Kong said China opposes nuclear proliferation but believes that every nation's rights "to peaceful use of nuclear energy should be respected."

"It is imperative at this moment to step up diplomatic efforts," Kong said.

"We think the Russian proposal is a good attempt to break this stalemate."

Larijani suggested that any eventual sanctions against Iran might not receive universal support and might end up hurting other countries, appearing to refer to those dependent on global oil markets.

"If such a case (of sanctions) happened, we think that the consequences of such a mistake would affect even the parties" initiating the sanctions, Larijani said. "The difficulties that may present themselves are not little."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will hold meetings in London on Monday with envoys of the four other veto-wielding permanent Security Council members—Britain, China, France and Russia—and Germany in an effort to reach a deal on Iran before the IAEA meeting opens Wednesday.

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Jonathan S. Landay in Washington contributed.)

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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