China's Foreign Ministry said on Friday it will send a senior official to Iran for talks on the country's nuclear programme, which has spurred tensions between Tehran and the West and led to new European Union and U.S. sanctions.

Assistant Foreign Minister Ma Zhaoxu will head to Iran for talks on Sunday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said, reiterating Beijing's emphasis on diplomacy over sanctions to resolve the issue.

We have consistently advocated dialogue and cooperation as the only proper channel for resolving the Iran nuclear issue, Liu told reporters at a regular news briefing.

(Ma will) have a further exchange of views with Iran over its nuclear programme, he added, without giving details.

Tensions rose last month when EU leaders agreed to embargo Iranian oil by July and to freeze the assets of Iran's central bank, joining the United States in a new round of measures aimed at discouraging Tehran's nuclear ambitions.

China is Iran's political ally and the top buyer of Iranian oil, taking around 20 percent of total exports.

Iran insists its nuclear programme is purely for peaceful means.

(Reporting by Michael Martina, Editing by Jonathan Thatcher)