China effectively rejects Iran nuclear invite

BEIJING Thu Jan 13, 2011 5:35am EST

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BEIJING (Reuters) - China effectively rejected Iran's invite to tour Tehran's nuclear facilities on Thursday, potentially smoothing a source of friction ahead of President Hu Jintao's state visit to the United States next week.

China's Foreign Ministry said that it would be "difficult" for its ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna to go.

Iran has invited Chinese and Russian ambassadors accredited to the U.N. nuclear watchdog to tour its nuclear facilities, but left out the other four world powers involved in talks on Iran's disputed uranium enrichment programme -- the United States, Britain, France and Germany.

"The Vienna representative is still in China right now, so it will be difficult for him to go to Iran," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a news briefing, without elaborating.

Beijing has backed U.N. Security Council resolutions pressing Iran to abandon its disputed nuclear activities but has close energy and trade ties with Iran and has opposed unilateral sanctions imposed by Europe and the United States.

Shi Yinhong, an international relations expert at Renmin University in Beijing, said China most likely took the decision to avoid causing any problems for Hu while he is in Washington.

"This is most likely related to President Hu Jintao's visit to the United States, showing that China respects the United States' position. They don't want anything spoiling the atmosphere for the visit," Shi said.

"China would also feel there is no point in them going if the EU and Russia also don't."

The European Union foreign affairs chief, Catherine Ashton, said on Friday that the bloc has also turned down the invitation, saying that inspecting the site "requires expertise", referring to IAEA inspectors. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Thursday though that Iran's offer deserved attention. Lavrov told reporters any gesture that indicated greater openness from Tehran should be welcomed but cautioned that such a visit could never replace regular inspections from the IAEA or talks with major powers on Iran's nuclear programme. Western diplomats said last week that Russia and China were being actively discouraged from going on the tour as this could erode the united front between the six countries involved in Iran's nuclear talks and potentially weaken sanctions against Tehran.

"This invitation to a very few diplomats to come tour a relatively few nuclear facilities cannot be and is not a substitute for Iran cooperating with the agency, with the IAEA, and fulfilling its international obligations," the U.S. ambassador to the IAEA, Glyn Davies, told Radio Free Europe's Radio Farda.

The West suspects Iran's nuclear programme is directed at developing bombs. Tehran says it is for peaceful energy only.

Talks scheduled next week in Istanbul could be the "last chance" for the West because Tehran's atomic capability is improving, a senior Iranian official was quoted as saying.

Spokesman Hong said China hoped the talks would "make progress".

His comments come just a day after a senior Iranian official and top Chinese diplomats met to discuss Iran's nuclear programme.

(Additional reporting by Sabrina Mao and Ben Blanchard in Beijing, Steve Gutterman in Moscow and Fredrik Dahl in Vienna)

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