Iran's chief nuclear negotiator arrives in China for talks

Iran's chief nuclear negotiator arrived in Beijing on Thursday in an apparent bid to shore up support with a key ally to stave off U.S. and European efforts to sanction Tehran over its alleged atomic weapons program. Iran's High Council of National Security Secretary Ali Larijani was scheduled during his daylong trip to meet with Chinese officials, including Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing and State Councilor Tang Jiaxuan, the Iranian Embassy said. No other details were released.

The West fears that Iran's uranium enrichment program is a precursor to making nuclear weapons, but Tehran says its intentions are peaceful and that it wants only civilian nuclear energy. Iran is trying to prevent the U.S. and some European nations from bringing it before the U.N. Security Council, which can impose a range of sanctions or other measures over its alleged weapons program.

China, as one of five, veto-wielding permanent members of the Council, could block any punitive action against Tehran. Larijani was originally to stay through Friday but the embassy said his meetings were scheduled to last only a day and that he would return to Iran after the visit.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry had no immediate comment. Beijing says it favors diplomacy in dealing with Iran's disputed nuclear activities. But the United States and Europe have been lobbying China to take a tougher stand, and have sought its support for Tehran to be brought to the U.N. Security Council.

China, Russia and India are allies and trading partners of Iran and have been reluctant to see Tehran punished or ostracized through the Security Council. Larijani met with Russian Security Council chief Igor Ivanov in Moscow on Tuesday, and was positive about a Russian proposal to allow Tehran to enrich its uranium in Russia.

China's hesitation over the Security Council referral has prompted suggestions that Beijing wants to avoid angering Iran, a major oil source for its energy-hungry economy. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick, who is visiting China this week, said Wednesday he warned Chinese leaders that allowing Iran to develop nuclear weapons could threaten Beijing's crucial supplies of Middle Eastern oil. Zoellick said he warned Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and other officials in meetings that if they were concerned about energy security, it would be "extremely dangerous" to allow nuclear weapons development in the Middle East, center of the world oil industry, reports the AP. I.L.