UNITED NATIONS - Six major powers on Friday discussed efforts to persuade Iran to halt its nuclear enrichment program but China made clear it wants them to keep talking rather than impose new sanctions on Tehran.
The U.S. State Department said senior officials from the United States, Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia held a conference call on the issue.
They discussed both tracks, both the pressure track and the (negotiating track), State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters, referring to the twin policy of diplomacy and sanctions which the five permanent U.N. Security Council members and Germany have deployed with Iran.
Western members of the group have been discussing a possible fourth round of U.N. sanctions in response to Iran's refusal to freeze uranium enrichment work as demanded by five Security Council resolutions.
Moscow has indicated it is ready to support new punitive steps but China, which like Russia has close commercial ties to Iran, is resisting. As a permanent Security Council member, China can use its veto to block any new sanctions resolution.
This week, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said his country was ready to send its low-enriched uranium to Russia and France for further purification into fuel for a reactor that makes medical isotopes. Tehran had earlier annoyed Russia and the Western powers by rejecting such an offer.
Ahmadinejad's surprising remarks came after details of U.S. and French documents outlining possible new U.N. sanctions against Iran were leaked. Possible targets include Iran's central bank, Revolutionary Guard Corps and energy sector.
But Beijing made clear it strongly preferred dialogue.
Referring to Ahmadinejad's remarks, a Chinese diplomat at the United Nations said the six powers should take that offer and see if the Iranians really mean to want to have a breakthrough in the negotiations.
This is an open, public ... offer from the highest authorities, the envoy said on condition of anonymity.
Iran rejects Western allegations that it is seeking atomic weapons and refuses to halt its enrichment program. It says its sole aim is to generate electricity.
WARNING FROM RUSSIA
Like China, Russia reluctantly supported three rounds of U.N. sanctions against Iran after working hard to dilute the measures during closed-door negotiations on the resolutions.
But Moscow warned on Friday that the Security Council would take up the issue again if Tehran fails to act constructively.
We confirmed that if we do not see a constructive answer from Iran, we will have to discuss this in the U.N. Security Council, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters at a news conference with his German counterpart, Guido Westerwelle, in Berlin.
Westerwelle told Deutschlandfunk radio that Iran has been using delaying tactics.
For the past two years Iran has repeatedly bluffed and played tricks, Westerwelle said. It has played for time and of course we in the international community cannot accept a nuclear-armed Iran.
Crowley said the six officials discussed Ahmadinejad's comments but added that Iran's representative at the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, had not signaled any formal shift in position.
Beijing, which appeared to snub the others by sending a low-level representative to a meeting in New York last month, had its assistant secretary for arms control, take part in the call. Crowley said this was an appropriate representation.
In Munich, Germany, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg voiced doubts about whether Tehran was ready to accept the IAEA fuel exchange proposal.
We are waiting for a simple yes from Iran (to the fuel offer), he said. We haven't been able to move forward.
Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, at the same security conference in Munich, said diplomacy remains the best way to resolve the standoff.
We believe Iran has not totally shut the door on the IAEA proposal on nuclear fuel supply, he said.
A day earlier, Yang said even discussing new sanctions now, let alone imposing them, could be harmful.
To talk about sanctions at the moment will complicate the situation and might stand in the way of finding a diplomatic solution, he said.
(Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed in Washington, Michael Nienaber in Berlin, William Maclean and David Graham in Munich; editing by Alan Elsner )