Chinese officials start working out Iran options

The United States and its European allies met with delegates of Russia and China on Monday in hopes of resolving their differences over what action to take against Iran for restarting its nuclear program. The main question of whether to refer Iran to the United Nations Security Council, which has the power to impose sanctions, was at the top of the agenda at the closed London meeting of the council's top powers.

Britain, France, Germany and the United States have been pushing for a referral since the Europeans decided last week that talks with Tehran had reached a dead end.

Officials said the four nations would try to win the backing of Russia and China, which have close commercial ties with Iran and have resisted referral in the past.

Iran's decision last week to break the seals at its main uranium enrichment plant has alarmed the West, which fears the regime intends to build a nuclear bomb. Tehran insists it only wants to produce electricity.

Speaking before the talks, Britain's Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said that dialogue with Moscow and Beijing who both wield vetoes in the Security Council _ was of "crucial importance."

Prime Minister Tony Blair's official spokesman said the London talks signaled "growing international concern at the behavior of the Iranian government and at ... the words of the Iranian president," who has called for Israel to be "wiped off the map."

China, which is highly dependent on Iranian oil, has warned that hauling Iran before the Security Council would escalate the confrontation.

"China believes that under the current situation, all relevant sides should remain restrained and stick to solving the Iranian nuclear issue through negotiations," the Foreign Ministry in Beijing said in a statement Monday, adding that Zhang Yan, director of its Arms Control Department, was attending the London meeting.

In Russia, lawmaker Andrei Kokoshin, a former National Security Council head, told www.strana.ru, a Web site close to the Kremlin, that "the extreme positions that are present in both Washington and Tehran are making it considerably harder for Russia to facilitate a way out of the crisis."

Nonetheless, European diplomats believe there are signs that Russia, which is deeply involved in building Iranian reactors for power generation, is leaning toward their position. U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Kislyak attended the talks, joined by senior diplomats from Britain, France and Germany.

Straw, who did not attend the talks, said the "onus is on Iran" to prove its program is peaceful. He said the international community's confidence had been "sorely undermined by a history of concealment and deception" by the clerical regime.

He again ruled out military action against Iran. "Military action is not on the agenda and it is certainly not on the agenda at this meeting," he added.

He added that sanctions were not inevitable even if the nuclear dispute is referred to the Security Council, saying other countries had complied with council demands without the need for sanctions. Blair's spokesman said the international community would not be bowed by Iranian threats that economic sanctions could cause oil prices to jump.

"If that is what Iran is trying to do it is mistaken in believing it can do it," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity in keeping with government policy.

Monday's talks aim to build consensus on what action to take, before an emergency board meeting of the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, expected in early February. Iran last week removed U.N. seals from its main uranium enrichment facility in Natanz and resumed research on nuclear fuel, including small-scale enrichment, after a 2Ѕ-year freeze.

With the backing of Russia and China uncertain, European diplomats have been unwilling to talk publicly about what sanctions could be imposed on Tehran.

Economic sanctions targeting oil and gas exports are thought unlikely. Iran is OPEC's second-largest producer and preventing it from doing business could disrupt the world's energy markets, the AP reports.

D.M.