BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi on Tuesday repeated a warning that Beijing is opposed to Iran possessing nuclear weapons, but defended Tehran's right to peaceful nuclear power.
Yang, speaking at a news conference held as part of China's annual parliamentary session, reiterated that China opposed unilateral sanctions on Iran, against a backdrop of ratcheting international tensions over Tehran's nuclear activities.
Yang's comments come a day after the United Nations' nuclear watchdog's chief said he has "serious concerns" about possible military dimensions to Tehran's atomic activities, and after U.S. President Barack Obama left open the possibility of military action if Iran builds a nuclear weapon.
Although 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.
"We are opposed to any country in the Middle East, including Iran, developing and possessing nuclear weapons," Yang said, adding that Iran nonetheless has the right to pursue nuclear activities for peaceful purposes. "We oppose unilateral sanctions," he added.
Yang's comments laid bare the tricky path Beijing is trying to steer between pressure from Washington and its allies, and rival expectations from Iran, which looks to China as a sympathetic power and a big oil customer.
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.
Beijing has also resisted Western efforts to exert pressure on Iran by imposing sanctions on its oil exports, much of which flow to China.
Yang also called for more time for talks between Iran and the "P5+1" group of the five permanent U.N. Security Council members as well as Germany.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu assured President Barack Obama on Monday that Israel has not made any decision on attacking Iran's nuclear sites, sources close to the talks said, but Netanyahu gave no sign of backing away from possible military action.
Reporting by Chris Buckley, Writing by Sui-Lee Wee; Editing by Ken Wills and Daniel Magnowski