Iran Holds Talks with Beijing after China Backs US Call for Sanctions

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The Guardian/UK

Iran Holds Talks with Beijing after China Backs US Call for Sanctions

Tehran's leading nuclear negotiator arrives in China after Beijing agrees to begin drafting UN resolution

by
Julian Borger and Ewen MacAskill in Washington and agencies

Hillary Clinton says the permanent UN security council members are 'unified' on sanctions talks. (Photograph: Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

Iran's most senior nuclear official today
arrived in China for talks, a day after Beijing
agreed to begin drafting a UN resolution imposing sanctions against
Tehran over its nuclear programme.

Yesterday, the US secretary of
state, Hillary Clinton, said the five permanent security council
members, plus Germany, "continue to be unified" in talks on sanctions.

"There
will be a great deal of further consultation, not only among the [six],
but other members of the security council and other [UN] member nations
during the next weeks," Clinton added.

Officials with knowledge
of the talks said an agreement to begin drafting a security council
resolution had been reached in a telephone call involving
representatives of the US, China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany.

The
negotiations will now move to New York, where diplomats will hammer out
a sanctions package. On Tuesday, the US president, Barack Obama, said he hoped the UN
would pass a sanctions resolution within weeks.

China refused to
comment on the sanctions today as the Iranian negotiator, Saeed Jalili,
arrived in Beijing for a prearranged meeting with the Chinese foreign
minister, Yang Jiechi.

"Your visit this time is very important,"
Jiechi told Jalili before the talks. "We attach great importance to
China's relations with Iran."

Jalili agreed that the relationship
between Iran and China was "very important", adding: "It is very
important for our two countries to co-operate on all the issues."

Bill
Burton, a White House spokesman, yesterday said there was a sense of
urgency about applying pressure to Iran.

"There are some very
intense conversations happening at the United Nations right now that
we're able to make some real progress on," he said.

Mark Toner, a
US state department spokesman, confirmed that the telephone conference
had taken place and said the US had been represented by the number three
at the state department, William Burns.

The agreement came after a
similar conference call a week ago, in which China participated after
weeks of stalling.

Burton said the White House was confident it
would be able to work with China to apply "meaningful" pressure.

Bringing
Beijing to the negotiating table is seen as a diplomatic breakthrough
in Washington, but the degree of Obama's success in winning the argument
will be measured by the final terms of the UN resolution and how long
it takes to agree.

China is in the process of changing its
delegation at the UN, a move that could delay negotiations further. Some
officials said they expected the security council talks to drag on
until June.

The US had originally sought broad sanctions against
Iran's energy sector. Russia and China have said the measures are
targeted against individuals and institutions directly linked with
Iran's nuclear and missile programme.

Three rounds of sanctions
have already been imposed on Iran. The US claims Tehran is covertly
seeking nuclear weapon capability, while Iran's president, Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad, says the country's nuclear industry is for peaceful power
generation.

Negotiations over sanctions have taken months in the
past, and although Obama has said he would like to see a deal this
spring, they are likely to be protracted again.

Following the
revelation last September that Tehran had been building a covert uranium
enrichment plant near Qom, and the collapse of a compromise deal under
which Iran would export the bulk of its enriched uranium stockpile for
processing, the Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, had agreed the need
for new sanctions.

But until yesterday, Beijing had held out
against US-led pressure to begin drafting a resolution.

In a
further sign of improving relations between the US and China, Beijing
announced today that the president, Hu Jintao, would attend a summit on
nuclear security in the US this month.

Until the announcement by
the foreign ministry, it had not been clear whether Hu would shun the
event, which will discuss both disarmament and ways to reduce the threat
of rogue nations or terrorists gaining access to nuclear weapons.

This was
because of Chinese unhappiness over US arms sales to Taiwan and Obama's
meeting with the Dalai Lama.

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