China says ‘difficult’ to accept Iran nuclear invite

China said it will be “difficult” for its ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency to tour Iran’s nuclear facilities, potentially smoothing a source of friction ahead of President Hu Jintao’s trip to Washington next week.

China has backed United Nations (UN) Security Council resolutions pressing Iran to abandon its disputed nuclear activities but China has close energy and trade ties with Iran and has opposed unilateral sanctions imposed by Europe and the United States.

“The Vienna representative is still in China right now, so it will be difficult for him to go to Iran,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei said at a news briefing, without elaborating.

Western diplomats had said last week that Russia and China were being actively discouraged from going on the tour as this could erode the united front between the six world powers involved in talks on Iran’s disputed uranium enrichment programme — the United States, China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany.

Western diplomats have described Iran’s invitation as an attempt to split the six to weaken sanctions.

Iran earlier this month made the surprise invitation to ambassadors accredited to the UN nuclear watchdog in Vienna to visit key nuclear plants.

The United States, Britain, France and Germany were not invited. Iran invited China, as well as Russia, which has yet to make a public announcement.

The European Union also turned down the invitation.

The West suspects Iran’s nuclear programme is directed at developing bombs. Tehran says it is for peaceful energy only.

“As for the upcoming six-country and European Union (EU) dialogue with Iran, China hopes this meeting will help all side to establish mutual trust, seek out consensus and make progress,” Hong said. “We would like to work with all side to advance these efforts.”

The talks next week could be the “last chance” for the West because Tehran’s atomic capability is improving, a senior Iranian official was quoted as saying.

Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Tehran’s nuclear ambassador, raised the stakes for the January 21 to January 22 meeting with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany, which want assurances that Iran is not trying to develop nuclear weapons.

Once Iran can make its own fuel for a research reactor, which it has said will happen this year, it may not return to negotiations if the talks to be held in Istanbul fail, the official IRNA news agency quoted him as saying on Wednesday.

Hong’s comments come just a day after a senior Iranian official and top Chinese diplomats met to discuss Iran’s nuclear programme, and less than a week before Hu heads to Washington when Iran, North Korea and trade and currency disputes will be high on the agenda. — Reuters

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