China on Thursday urged Iran to heed rising international worry about its nuclear ambitions, saying Beijing would seek to work with Europe and the United Nations to defuse the crisis but holding its tongue on any new sanctions.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said on Wednesday that his country's nuclear program was irreversible, showing continued defiance in the face of possible new U.N. sanctions.
He claimed that Iran now had 3,000 centrifuges to enrich uranium in its Natanz nuclear plant. Enriched uranium can fuel power plants but also, if refined further, act as material for bombs.
Iran says its intentions are peaceful, but Western powers say the Islamic state wants the ability to make nuclear weapons and they have warned Tehran to obey a U.N. call to halt enrichment.
As a permament member of the U.N. Security Council, China has the power to pass or veto any fresh sanctions on Tehran, but -- without outright excluding them -- Beijing has repeatedly said that negotiations can still solve the standoff.
Repeating that call for dialogue, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao showed growing impatience with Tehran, bluntly urging it to take a more conciliatory stance.
We demand that Iran positively respond and pay attention to international concerns and calls and adopt a flexible attitude to solve the problem peacefully through dialogue and communication, Liu told a regular news conference when asked about Ahmadinejad's comments and possible sanctions.
Liu did not directly address the sanctions issue, merely saying that China was willing to cooperate and communicate with the United Nations and the European Union to move in the right direction.
Iran's standoff with the West has left China in a bind as Beijing seeks to balance ties with both sides.
Iran is China's third biggest supplier of imported crude oil, behind Angola and Saudi Arabia, and China also has major investments in Iran. (Reporting by Ben Blanchard, writing by Chris Buckley)