UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - China's U.N. ambassador on Tuesday dashed Western hopes for a swift agreement on a fourth round of U.N. sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program, saying the issue requires more "time and patience."
"This is not the right time or right moment for sanctions because the diplomatic efforts are still going on," Chinese envoy Zhang Yesui told reporters.
He said senior foreign ministry officials from China, Russia, the United States, Britain, France and Germany would meet later this month to discuss Iran's nuclear activities, which Western powers suspect are aimed at developing atomic weapons, not generating electricity as Tehran insists.
"The efforts aimed at diplomatic negotiations on the Iranian nuclear issue still need some time and patience," said Zhang, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the U.N. Security Council this month.
"Trying to bridge differences and finding a settlement through diplomatic efforts -- there's still space for such efforts," he said through an interpreter.
Tehran already has been hit with three rounds of U.N. sanctions for refusing to comply with demands that it halt sensitive nuclear activities. The United States and its allies have said it is time for a fourth round of sanctions, but diplomats in New York say Russia and China are resisting.
U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley, asked by reporters in Washington about Zhang's statement, said, "This is not a static situation," and added that "views can change."
China did not schedule a meeting on Iran during its council presidency. A Western diplomat told reporters on condition of anonymity that it was unlikely a new sanctions resolution against Iran would be passed in the first two months of 2010.
Other council diplomats have said it might take until June at the earliest to come up with a package of sanctions that would be acceptable to Russia and China.
"Zhang's remarks confirm what we'd already suspected was the case -- that it's going to take a long time to convince the Chinese," a Western diplomat said on condition of anonymity.
President Barack Obama has offered Iran the possibility of deeper engagement with the United States if it cooperates on removing fears about its nuclear program and on other issues. This reversed the policy of Obama's predecessor George W. Bush, who had advocated isolating and punishing Iran.
Obama had given Iran until the end of 2009 to respond to his overtures and to an offer from the six powers of economic and political incentives in exchange for a suspension of Iran's nuclear enrichment program. Iran ignored the deadline.
China and Russia, like Britain, France and the United States, have veto power on the 15-nation Security Council and could block any new sanctions resolution against Iran. China and Russia have lucrative commercial ties to Iran.
So far, punitive steps have focused on Iran's nuclear and missile programs, imposing asset freezes and travel bans on individuals and firms linked to them, including banks that provide financing.
Originally, the United States, Britain, France and Germany had favored tougher new sanctions that would target Iran's energy sector but diplomats said Russia and China made clear they would never support such steps.
U.S. officials, congressional aides and diplomats said last month they feared broad-based sanctions against Iran could undermine the country's protest movement and pressed instead for measures targeting the Iranian leadership.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Monday the United States believed new sanctions were necessary to pressure Iran and its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to curb Tehran's nuclear programs without hurting ordinary people.
Additional reporting by Andrew Quinn in Washington; Editing by Will Dunham