Big powers meet on Iran but expectations low
Diplomats from six major powers met on Saturday to discuss whether Iran should face new U.N. sanctions for refusing to halt sensitive nuclear work, but Western envoys said China's decision to send a low-level official ruled out a quick deal, Reuters reported.
The meeting comes after Tehran ignored an end of 2009 deadline set by U.S. President Barack Obama for the Islamic Republic to respond to an offer from the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China of economic and political incentives in exchange for Iran halting its nuclear enrichment program.
Five of the six nations that made the offer are sending senior foreign ministry officials -- so-called political directors -- to the meeting.
But China decided not to send its political director, sending instead a counselor from its U.N. mission who was expected to have little decision-making authority. The Chinese level of representation "couldn't have been lower," one Western diplomat said on condition of anonymity.
China's virtual snub of the meeting has caused consternation among the four Western powers in the group, which had hoped to reach an agreement on whether to begin drafting a new Security Council resolution on a fourth round of U.N. sanctions against Tehran.
Diplomats said they did not know China's motive, speculating it might be to illustrate Beijing's resistance to punishing Iran with more sanctions or dismay at U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, which Beijing views as a renegade province.
"There's not much point in having the meeting in light of the Chinese representation but we're going to have it," a diplomat from one of the six countries said. "We need to send a message to Iran that we're not dropping this issue."
"I wouldn't expect a particular deliverable out of this meeting," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters on Friday.
Washington and its Western allies accuse Iran of trying to develop nuclear weapons under the cover of its civilian atomic program. Iran says its atomic program is designed to generate electricity so it can export more of its valuable oil and gas.
The U.S. and European delegations believe Iran has had enough time to respond to what they describe as a generous offer to Tehran, but China's U.N. ambassador, Zhang Yesui, said on January 5 it was not "the right time or right moment for sanctions because the diplomatic efforts are still going on."
The process of negotiating a new sanctions resolution will most likely take months, Western diplomats predicted.
Western officials have said privately that Russia is "on board" for more sanctions, but several diplomats voiced skepticism the Russians would support tough measures.
Going into the meeting, Russian delegate Sergei Ryabkov told reporters Moscow had always backed a "dual-track" approach of talks and sanctions. "We do have already three sanctions resolutions -- that's the good proof of it," he said.
Existing U.N. sanctions target Iran's nuclear and missile industries. The Western powers had originally hoped to sanction Iran's energy sector but dropped the idea months ago when it became clear Russia and China would never accept it.
In order to secure Beijing's and Moscow's support, Western diplomats said they would probably be willing to accept a less ambitious resolution that adds a few new names of Iranian individuals and firms to a U.N. blacklist and focuses some attention on Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps.
They said Russia would probably back such a resolution, but it was not clear if they could get the backing of Beijing, a veto-wielding permanent Security Council member like Russia, the United States, Britain and France.
China and Russia, which have lucrative commercial ties with Tehran, supported all three previous rounds of U.N. sanctions but lobbied hard to dilute the measures before they were voted on by the 15-nation Security Council.