Western powers pressed for new sanctions against Iran on Thursday but China and Russia called for diplomatic negotiations as the best way to achieve a peaceful settlement of the dispute over Tehran's nuclear program.
China and Russia also urged Iran to resolve a standoff with the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency and key powers on how to supply nuclear fuel for Tehran's research reactor, saying this is key to easing current tensions.
Neither China's deputy U.N. ambassador Liu Zhenmin nor Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin responded directly to a proposal for a fourth round of sanctions against Iran, backed by the U.S., Britain, France and Germany, which was sent to their governments in recent days.
It would target Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard and toughen existing measures against its shipping, banking and insurance sectors, according to well-informed U.N. diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity because the discussions are taking place among capitals.
China, which relies on Iran for much of its energy, traditionally opposes sanctions, but it went along with the first three sanctions resolutions. It has been skeptical of the need for a fourth round of sanctions, which Western powers are seeking to pressure Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment program, especially following a recent report by the International Atomic Energy Agency that said Tehran may be making nuclear bombs.
But Liu said Beijing remains in favor of addressing the Iranian nuclear issue through "the dual-track strategy" of diplomatic engagement and pressure through sanctions — a comment which U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice called "important."
She said discussions were continuing among capitals on "concrete and specific ways" to increase pressure on Iran.
"The choice that Iran faces (is) quite clear: it can engage seriously in diplomacy and resolve our collective concern about its nuclear program ... or it can face greater pressure and isolation," Rice said.
Liu said Beijing has "strictly observed" its obligations to enforce the three rounds of U.N. sanctions imposed on Iran since 2006, but he stressed that Beijing does not believe that sanctions can resolve the dispute over Iran's nuclear ambitions, which Tehran insists are purely peaceful and aimed solely at producing nuclear energy.
"We believe that sanctions are not an end in themselves," Liu said. "In no way can they provide a solution to this issue. Therefore, diplomatic negotiations and the peaceful settlement still remain the best approach."
Even though restarting negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program "has encountered some difficulties, the door to contact and dialogue has not closed," he stressed.
Russia's Churkin agreed, saying "We do believe that there is still a horizon for negotiations."
He said finding a mutually acceptable plan to provide fuel for Tehran's research reactor and implementing it "would be a credible step in restoring trust in the solely peaceful orientation of the Iranian nuclear program and would best meet the humanitarian needs of the Iranian people."
Iran has already amassed about 2 tons of low-enriched uranium — more than enough for further enrichment into material for one warhead.
The IAEA-endorsed plan would take 70 percent of that material to Russia for 20-percent enrichment and then to France for processing into fuel rods for Tehran's research reactor. It was endorsed by world powers because it would ensure a continued supply of medical isotopes from the reactor for Iranian cancer patients while delaying Iran's ability to further enrich uranium to weapons grade by stripping it of most of its low-enriched stockpile.
Despite initial signals that it might accept the IAEA-backed plan, Iran recently rejected it and has started its own program to enrich uranium to close to 20 percent.
Liu and Churkin called for a quick solution to the nuclear fuel issue and a prompt resumption of the broad dialogue between Iran and the five powers that have been seeking a negotiated agreement on Tehran's nuclear program — China, Russia, the U.S., Britain and France — all veto-wielding Security Council members — and Germany. Liu also urged Iran to respond to all outstanding questions from the IAEA.
All five permanent council members spoke at an open council meeting after the chair of the committee monitoring sanctions against Iran, Japan's U.N. Ambassador Yukio Takasu, presented a 90-day report on violations focusing on the seizure of arms from Iran being shipped illegally, reportedly to Syria. He said Syria responded but Iran did not.
Both Takasu and Rice noted that the committee has the authority to impose additional targeted sanctions on entities that facilitate sanctions violations or evasion.
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