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China urges flexibility on Iran, downplays sanctions

China urged other powers to show more flexibility in dealing with Iran's disputed nuclear program, playing down prospects of sanctions after six countries met to discuss the standoff.

While Western powers have looked to further sanctions against Iran over its rejection of a UN plan to rein in Tehran's nuclear ambitions, Russia and now especially China have resisted such steps and called for more negotiations.

Envoys from the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China met in New York at the weekend to discuss the standoff. The Chinese delegate at those talks reiterated Beijing's position that it does not back further sanctions against Iran for now.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu reinforced that stance on Tuesday, avoiding even using the word “sanctions” in replying to reporters' questions about the meeting.

“Our consistent proposal has been to resolve the Iran nuclear issue appropriately through dialogue and consultation,” Ma told a regular news briefing.

“We hope all sides will enhance dialogue and cooperation, and show a more flexible and pragmatic approach,” he said.

Some Western diplomats said the New York meeting showed a shared commitment to a “dual track” of dialogue and sanctions in dealing with Iran.

But Ma's comments underscored Beijing's reluctance to contemplate fresh sanctions against Iran, which was China's third biggest source of imported crude oil in the first 11 months of 2009, behind Saudi Arabia and Angola.

China keeps other extensive trade and investment ties with Iran.

As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, China can veto any potential resolution to censure Iran or ratchet up sanctions.

Western powers fear Iran is developing the means to make nuclear weapons, which Iran denies.

“The urgent task now is for all sides to pay attention to the broader picture and step up diplomatic efforts,” said Ma.

He said the New York “P5 plus 1” meeting “did not touch on specific next steps” over Iran.

China also dismayed other delegations by sending a mid-ranking diplomat from its UN mission to the New York meeting, which had been billed as a gathering of top-level diplomats known as “political directors.”

China has said it could not send its Vice Foreign Minister He Yafei because of scheduling conflicts.

But diplomats from other countries read the move as a snub, speculating it might be to show Beijing's resistance to punishing Iran or ire at US arms sales to Taiwan, which China claims sovereignty over since their split in 1949. (Reuters)