Thursday, February 23, 2006

China Sending Official to Iran for Nuclear Talks

A Chinese vice minister will fly to Tehran on Friday to discuss ways of defusing the international crisis over Iran's nuclear programme, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said on Thursday. Vice Foreign Minister Lu Guozeng's three-day visit would focus on Iran's nuclear programme, Liu Jianchao told a press briefing in Beijing.

The two-way talks will take place just over a week before the United Nations' nuclear watchdog meets to discus Iran.

"China will explore with Iran how to ease the crisis under present circumstances and how to take practical measures to stop the problem from worsening," Liu said. READ MORE

Lu's area of expertise is the Middle East and North Africa.

On Wednesday, Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing appealed to the international community to be patient and flexible in the hope that Iran and the three European powers who have led past negotiations -- Britain, France and Germany -- can restart talks.

"The days before the March 6 meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) are crucial," Xinhua news agency quoted Li as saying after meeting visiting German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

The German minister said he welcomed China's role.

"I want expressly to say that we are pleased that there are signals that China is prepared to assume global responsibility," Steinmeier told a seminar in Beijing.

Iran recently announced it was restarting uranium enrichment work but insists it is interested solely in civilian nuclear power. The United States and the European Union believe Iran's programme is aimed at eventually making atomic weapons.

The IAEA meeting on March 6 will consider whether Iran has heeded its demands to end any enrichment work and to cooperate with nuclear inspectors, and the United States and EU countries may press to refer Iran to the U.N. Security Council for sanctions.

China has called on Iran to suspend all uranium enrichment. But it has also repeatedly appealed for a diplomatic solution and rejected sanctions.

Lu, the vice minister, would also discuss "political cooperation" between the two countries, the spokesman Liu said. But he did not specify what cooperation.

China, the world's second-largest oil consumer, has boosted economic and energy ties with Iran. China National Heavy-Duty Truck Corp. on Tuesday signed a contract to provide 10,000 trucks to Iran for $350 million (200 million pounds), Xinhua said on Thursday.

Last week, China and Iran were reportedly on the verge of finalising a multi-billion dollar agreement to develop a major oilfield in Iran.

But on Thursday, the spokesman Liu dismissed as unfounded speculation that Chinese economic policy chieftain, Ma Kai, was heading to Tehran for oil talks.

China is one of Iran's biggest oil export markets, importing roughly 300,000 barrels of Iranian crude a day.

Iran and Russia are discussing a Russian offer to enrich uranium for Iranian power plants on its own soil -- seen by some as a last chance to defuse the row over Iran's nuclear ambitions before Western governments seek sanctions.