BEIJING Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will visit China in June for a security summit and discuss his country's disputed nuclear programme with Chinese President Hu Jintao, a senior diplomat said on Wednesday, criticizing new sanctions aimed at Iran.
Ahmadinejad will be attending the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) meeting hosted by Beijing in June, China's Vice Foreign Minister Cheng Guoping told reporters at a briefing. The SCO is a regional security forum that groups China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and which Iran is attending as an observer.
The summit will likely be overshadowed by the presence of Ahmadinejad, whose country is at the centre of a standoff with the West over its nuclear programme.
"Certainly, during his meeting with President Hu, the Iran nuclear issue will be an important talking point," Cheng said.
Ahmadinejad's visit to China takes on particular significance as China is a veto-wielding permanent member of the U.N. Security Council and has resisted U.S. demands for sanctions on Iran.
Iran, OPEC's second-largest producer, exports most of its 2.2 million barrels of oil per day to Asia, home to its four main customers: China, Japan, India and South Korea.
All four nations have cut back on their purchases, dissuaded by a previous package of U.S. financial sanctions due to take effect at the end of June as well as an EU oil embargo and a ban on shipping insurance, which take effect on July 1.
The U.S. Senate unanimously approved on Monday a package of new economic sanctions on Iran's oil sector.
Iran is under increasing pressure to curb its nuclear programme and its security council chief is due to hold talks in Iraq later on Wednesday with six world powers - the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) earlier announced it was close to a deal to unblock monitoring of Iran's suspected work on a nuclear weapon, a positive sign before the six big powers meet Iran's security council chief.
China has repeatedly urged a negotiated solution to the dispute over Tehran's atomic activities, which Western governments say appear aimed at mastering the means to make nuclear weapons. Tehran says those activities are peaceful.
Asked about new U.S. and European Union sanctions targeting Iran's crucial oil exports, Cheng repeated China's opposition to what it views as unilateral moves made outside the framework of the United Nations.
"We strictly follow the relevant U.N. resolutions on the Iran nuclear issue. But at the same time, China opposes using bilateral sanctions to force other countries or to harm other countries from normal trading with Iran," he said.
While Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao warned Tehran in January against any effort to acquire nuclear weapons, Beijing has generally been reticent about publicly warning Iran or even firmly suggesting that Tehran might want to develop the means to develop nuclear weapons.
Communist Party mouthpiece the People's Daily warned in a commentary on Wednesday that increased U.S. pressure on Iran risked worsening the crisis.
"The United States still has a lot of room for maneuver on the Iran nuclear issue. But ... stubbornly sticking to confrontation will most likely lead to new strategic misjudgments," it wrote.
The People's Daily commentary was published under the pen name "Zhong Sheng", meaning "Voice of China", which is often used to give the paper's view on foreign policy issues.
(Additional reporting by Sui-Lee Wee; Editing by Eric Meijer)