Six major world powers agreed Wednesday to begin putting together proposed new sanctions on Iran over its suspect nuclear program after China dropped its opposition.
China, long a holdout against fresh international penalties against Iran, signaled its willingness to consider a U.N. Security Council sanctions resolution.
"China has agreed to sit down and begin serious negotiations here in New York ... as a first step toward getting the entire U.N. Security Council on board with a tough sanctions regime against Iran," Susan Rice, the American ambassador to the U.N., told CNN.
"We're gratified that now we're going to get down to the nuts and bolts of negotiations. That's what's necessary," Rice said. "We will be working intensively in the coming weeks to build the strongest possible agreement to a set of sanctions that will put real pressure on Iran and clarify the stark choice that it faces."
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany, known as the "P5-plus-one," were unified.
"There will be a great deal of further consultation, not only among the P5-plus-one but other members of the Security Council and other member nations during the next weeks," Clinton told reporters at the United Nations.
China's change of position improves prospects for passing a resolution aimed at pressuring Iran to scale back its nuclear ambitions, which Tehran insists are limited to developing nuclear power for peaceful purposes.
President Barack Obama had said Tuesday he hoped to have Iran sanctions in place within weeks — a timetable that appeared highly ambitious given China's previous reluctance to even discuss specific sanctions. China had insisted that negotiation with Iran needed to be pursued.
On Wednesday, however, during a phone call among officials from the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany, the Chinese representative said his country was prepared to discuss specific potential sanctions. The two U.S. officials who described the call spoke on condition of anonymity because the diplomatic talks were ongoing.
One of the officials said China had made a commitment to discuss the specifics of a Security Council resolution, and that on that basis the U.S. would press ahead with an effort to pass such a measure. The officials cautioned that this does not mean there is yet a full consensus on U.N. sanctions.
The Obama administration is hoping to get a U.N. resolution by the end of April. Clinton has not publicly cited a specific timetable but in recent days has sounded more optimistic about the chances of getting China to agree that new penalties are needed to force Iran's hand.
"We happen to think that action in the Security Council is part of negotiation and diplomacy that can perhaps get the attention of the Iranian leadership," she said.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, speaking to reporters after meeting with Obama at the White House on Tuesday, said Washington and Paris were "inseparable" in their thinking on the subject of Iran sanctions.
"Iran cannot continue its mad race" toward acquiring nuclear weapons," Sarkozy said. "The time has come to take decisions."
Lee reported from the United Nations.
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