China, Iran to Discuss Nuclear Compromise

Iran's top nuclear negotiator is in Beijing Thursday, one day after a visit to Moscow. Under discussion is a Russian proposal that Iranian uranium be enriched on Russian soil, a compromise that would provide Iran with nuclear power but prevent it from developing nuclear weapons.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Iran's top nuclear negotiator is in Beijing today, one day after a visit to Moscow. Tehran's government is attempting to line up International support in the face of criticism of its nuclear program, ahead of next week's meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Under discussion is a Russian proposal that Iranian uranium be enriched on Russian soil. That compromise would provide Iran with nuclear power, but prevent it from developing nuclear weapons.

The U.S. and several West European nations have been pushing for the IAEA to refer Iran to the UN Security Council. NPR's Anthony Kuhn is in Beijing. And Anthony, where does the Chinese government stand on this dispute over Iran's nuclear ambitions?

ANTHONY KUHN reporting:

Well, it's being very careful not to come down too clearly on either side. Today, the Iranian negotiator, Ali Larijani, met with Chinese foreign minister Li Zhaoxing, and he was quick to point out that China was supportive in coming out against any sort of coercive or threatening talk by Western countries about sanctions or penalties upon Iran.

At the same time, it's very interesting to note that United State Deputy Security of State Robert Zellick also held talks with Chinese leaders on Tuesday, and he came out also saying that the U.S. and China were basically in agreement on the issue, and on the core issues of nonproliferation in general. So, it's clear from both of these that China is walking a very fine line, and trying to be fairly neutral on the issue.

MONTAGNE: And what has China indicated that it would do if it does come to a vote in the Security Council?

KUHN: Well, of course, China does hold one of the permanent five, one of the five permanent seats on the Security Council. What it's said so far is that sanctions against Iran would be likely to aggravate the matter, and it's not in favor of them. And we know from China's behavior on the Security Council in general that it uses its veto power very sparingly. Now, what China has said is that it agrees with both the U.S. and Iran on various issues.

For example, it wants to see the issue resolved peacefully, through the framework of the International Atomic Energy Agency. It also says that it recognizes Iran's right to have civilian nuclear power, and that also, as a nuclear power, Iran has certain rights and obligations which it expects it to fulfill. So, these are points of both sides that China concedes on.

MONTAGNE: What about this Russian proposal to enrich uranium for Iran? What's been the reaction by China?

KUHN: Well, at a press briefing at the Iranian Embassy here in Beijing today, Larijani called this a fruitful proposal, and that basically, they would be interested in any sort of proposal that would be beneficial to their civilian nuclear program. Interestingly, the Chinese said that as well. They said they'd be flexible and open to any sort of thing which would, any sort of proposal that would break the stalemate. Of course, the devil will be in the details, and so we'll see where that proposal goes.

MONTAGNE: And just very briefly, what's going on here, is China seeking to become a dealmaker on the International stage?

KUHN: Well, it can't do that in the same way it can on the North Korea issue, but it knows it has points to win with the U.S. in cooperating on the issue, and with Iran where it has increasing energy interests, now.

MONTAGNE: Anthony, thanks very much. NPR's Anthony Kuhn in Beijing.

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