China deals blow to Western efforts to punish Iran

Russia also adds fuel to the Fire

China has dealt a blow to Western efforts to increasediplomatic pressure on Iran over its nuclear programme by droppingout of a meeting to discuss tougher sanctions against Tehran.

Russia, which like China opposes further UN sanctions against Iran, added fuel to the fire by announcing on Friday that the UN nuclearwatchdog would soon start inspecting and sealing atomic fuel boundfor an Iranian reactor.

The West fears Iran wants to develop atomic weapons but Iran deniesthis. Tehran says it wants only to generate electricity.

Political directors from Britain, France, Germany, the United States,Russia and China were due to meet on November 19 to assess reportsabout Tehran’s nuclear programme from the United Nations and fromEU foreign policy chief Javier Solana.

“I think it’s partly related to genuine travel difficulties, but alsolinked to resistance on the broader question of sanctions from thatquarter,” a European diplomatic source said of China’s decision.

Russian state-owned nuclear fuel producer TVEL said inspectors fromthe International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will begin preparatorywork on November 26 until November 29 on a shipment of nuclear fuelbound for the Bushehr nuclear plant.

“We are ready to provide IAEA specialists with all the conditionsthey need to do their work,” Konstantin Grabelnikov, deputy head ofRussia’s Novosibirsk Chemical Concentrate Plant, which is preparingthe fuel, said in a statement.

Russia has given no specific date when it will send the nuclear fuelto Bushehr, but says it would be sent six months before the plant’sstart-up.

Because of payment delays, the plant’s start-up has been put backto at least 2008, Russian officials have said.

The United States said on Thursday it would work with its allies fora third round of UN sanctions after the IAEA reported Iran had madeimportant strides towards clarifying past nuclear activities but alsosaid major questions remained.

But some European diplomats say it may not be possible to persuadeRussia and China – both permanent veto-wielding members of theSecurity Council like France, Britain and the United States –to support a third round.

As a result, France is pushing for the European Union to impose itsown separate US-style sanctions against Iran.

On Friday, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said the reporthad done little to clarify matters. “There remain areas of darknessin the operations which for a very long time were hidden by the Iraniansin their nuclear development programme.”

While Russia and China appear to breaking away from the United States,Britain and France, the sixth country involved in negotiations –Germany – appeared to take a harder line.

“The foreign minister has made clear that if this is the case we wouldtake up this issue in Europe and consider together what steps couldbe taken by Europe,” spokesman Martin Jaeger told a regular news conferencewhen asked what Germany would do if the Security Council failed toapprove tougher sanctions.

Iran called on its Western enemies to apologise because the IAEA reportshowed Iran had been telling the truth about its atomic plans.

“The latest IAEA report confirms that Iran’s nuclear activities arecivilian and peaceful so what is the motive behind imposing sanction?”President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told Al Arabiya television.

“The Iranian nuclear file is just a pretext … should the nuclearfolder be folded, they would find another pretext.”

The United States has not ruled out military action if diplomacy failsto halt Iran’s atomic work.

During a joint appearance with Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda,President George W. Bush said Washington could “never tolerate” Irandeveloping nuclear capability.

“They should not imagine that if they wage such a war that the regionalone would be set ablaze,” said Ahmadinejad. “The region will beexposed to serious dangers and the first whose interests will be harmedare the Americans.”

Israel, which in 1981 bombed the Osirak nuclear power plant in Iraqto cripple Saddam Hussein’s secret atomic arms programme, urged worldpowers to be tough on Iran.

“Israel believes it is incumbent upon the international communityto send a crystal clear message to the leadership in Tehran that theirnuclear programme is unacceptable and must cease immediately,” ForeignMinistry spokesman Mark Regev said.

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