NEW YORK (Reuters) - Six major powers discussed on Saturday prospects of further sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program, but China made clear it opposed more punitive action at the moment, participants in the meeting said.
“It is inconclusive in the sense that we didn’t make any decisions right away,” Russian delegate Sergei Ryabkov told reporters after the three-hour meeting of diplomats from the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China.
The meeting came after Iran ignored President Barack Obama’s Dec 31, 2009, deadline to respond to an offer from the six powers of economic and political incentives in exchange for halting its nuclear enrichment program.
Washington and its Western allies accuse Iran of trying to develop nuclear weapons under the cover of its civilian atomic program. Iran says its program is designed to generate electricity so it can export more of its valuable oil and gas.
The European Union, which hosted the meeting at its New York office, said that despite the lack of a concrete outcome, further sanctions were now on the big-power agenda and the six would be in contact again soon to continue the discussions.
All the powers except China sent top level Foreign Ministry officials known as “political directors” to Saturday’s meeting. But Beijing, which said earlier this month that it was not the right time for new sanctions, sent only a mid-ranking diplomat from its U.N. mission, who left without speaking to reporters.
China’s virtual snub of the meeting — one Western diplomat said its level of representation “couldn’t have been lower” — dismayed the four Western powers in the group.
They had hoped to reach an agreement on whether to begin drafting a new Security Council resolution on a fourth round of sanctions against Tehran.
Several diplomats who attended the meeting said the Chinese delegate reiterated Beijing’s position that it does not support further sanctions against Iran at the moment but was careful not to rule out the possibility of backing them later.
Western diplomats said China’s motive for sending a low-level official was unclear. Senior EU official Robert Cooper told reporters that all six — including China — remained “committed to the two track approach” of engagement and possible further sanctions.
Several diplomats, however, raised doubts about China’s commitment to the sanctions track and hoped that Beijing remains fully on board with the other five powers.
But they said that China’s decision to stick with the group while it discusses sanctions sent a strong signal to Tehran. “The credible threat of further pressure does create some leverage over the Iranian system,” one said.
Senior EU official Robert Cooper told reporters it was not a meeting for decision-making but for a “stock taking and to see the way ahead.” He added, “We will continue to seek a negotiated solution, but consideration of appropriate further measures has also begun.”
The U.S. representative, William Burns, said, “It was a very useful session.”
Three previous rounds of U.N. Security Council sanctions have targeted Iran’s nuclear and missile industries, but Iran has shrugged them off and said it plans to pursue its right to enrich uranium. Both Russia and China lobbied hard to dilute the measures in all three sanctions resolutions.
The U.S. and European delegations believe Iran has had enough time to respond to what they describe as a generous offer. But China’s U.N. ambassador, Zhang Yesui, said on January 5 it was not “the right time or right moment for sanctions because the diplomatic efforts are still going on.”
Negotiating a new sanctions resolution will most likely take months, Western diplomats predict.
But several Western diplomats said they hoped the process of negotiating a new resolution would be over by May, when signatories of the 1970 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty gather to discuss ways of upgrading the treaty to deal with threats like Iran and North Korea.
Western officials have said privately that Russia was “on board” for more sanctions, provided they are not too tough.
The Western powers had originally hoped to sanction Iran’s energy sector but dropped the idea months ago when it became clear Russia and China would never accept it.
Additional reporting by Basil Katz; Editing by Alan Elsner