2010/04/03

Obama urges Hu to back Iran sanctions

US President Barack Obama urged Hu Jintao to work together on pressing Iran over its nuclear activities, but Hu did not openly commit to new sanctions on Tehran, according to official reports on Friday.

Obama and Hu discussed the growing international push to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions in an hour-long telephone call that followed China reported agreement on Wednesday to enter into serious negotiations over possible new UN-backed sanctions against Tehran.

Western powers say Tehran wants the means to make nuclear weapons, but China – which buys large amounts of oil from Iran – has for months fended off calls to back sanctions.

Together with Beijing's announcement on Thursday that President Hu will attend a nuclear security summit in Washington this month, the in-depth talk between the two leaders also augured lower tensions between Washington and Beijing after a rash of disputes.

"President Obama underscored the importance of working together to ensure that Iran lives up to its international obligations," the White House said in a statement after the telephone call, which took place later on Thursday Washington time – Friday morning in Beijing.

Western powers say Tehran is violating international nuclear safeguards and have told it to curtail uranium enrichment work, which could eventually be used to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons.

Iran denies it is seeking nuclear weapons and says its nuclear activities are peaceful.

In remarks reported on state television, Hu told Obama that he opposes the spread of nuclear weapons, but he did not directly broach Iran or sanctions.

"China has always taken seriously the issue of nuclear security, and opposed nuclear proliferation and terrorism," said Hu.

The mainland president's reported comments, and remarks from his foreign minister, showed that while Beijing may be ready to consider new sanctions against Iran, it is not prepared to publicly commit to supporting such sanctions, leaving room for haggling in the UN Security Council.

China is one of the five permanent members of the Security Council, each wielding the power to veto any resolution and thus block proposed UN sanctions.

Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi called for "flexibility" during talks with Iran's top nuclear envoy Saeed Jalili, who flew to Beijing on Thursday.

Yang's brief published remarks from his meeting with Jalili did not mention backing sanctions, but they also did not repeat China's long-standing line that sanctions are not the "fundamental" cure to the dispute.

Yang "urged all sides to enhance diplomatic efforts and demonstrate flexibility, and to create the conditions for resolving the Iran nuclear issue through dialogue and negotiations," the Chinese Foreign Ministry said on its website on Friday.

Beijing and Washington have jousted in recent months over internet censorship, Tibet, US weapons sales to Taiwan and US charges that the yuan is undervalued, raising the possibility that those tensions could spill over into dealings over Iran.

"I don't think China wants these bilateral issues to overshadow negotiations (over Iran), which is really an international issue," said Guo Xiangang, China's former diplomat to Tehran.

"China has always understood that it will take some time for relations with the United States to overcome the tensions, but also that the tensions would never overwhelm the whole relationship," said Guo, now a vice president of the China Institute of International Studies in Beijing.

At the UN, diplomats said the United States, Britain, France and Germany expect to meet with both Russia and China next week to begin drafting sanctions proposals.

A diplomat with knowledge of the talks said on Thursday China probably would support US proposals to blacklist banks, impose travel bans and freeze assets, but would not blacklist Iranian shipping firms, ban arms imports, or target oil and gas sectors.