BEIJING/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama urged his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao to help ratchet up pressure on Iran over its nuclear activities, but Hu did not openly commit to new sanctions on Tehran, according to official reports on Friday.
Obama and Hu discussed the growing international push to curb Iran’s nuclear plans in a telephone call that followed China’s agreement on Wednesday to enter into serious talks about possible new U.N.-backed sanctions against Tehran.
“President Obama underscored the importance of working together to ensure that Iran lives up to its international obligations,” the White House said in a statement after the hour-long telephone call, which took place late on Thursday Washington time, Friday morning in Beijing.
“The idea is to keep turning up the pressure” on Iran, Obama said in a separate interview with CBS television taped earlier this week and aired Friday.
“We’re going to ratchet up the pressure and examine how they respond but we’re going to do so with a unified international community,” Obama said.
Iran’s top nuclear envoy, in Beijing for talks, sounded defiant but gave no sign China had budged on its decision to consider backing a new United Nations Security Council resolution aimed at his country.
Western powers say Tehran wants the means to make nuclear weapons, but China — which buys large amounts of oil from Iran — has for months fended off calls to back sanctions.
“I think Iran now has no hope of making China keep with its stance of a few months ago in which it strongly opposed placing further sanctions,” said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing.
“China has already changed this stance.”
Together with China’s announcement on Thursday that Hu will attend a nuclear security summit in Washington this month, the talk between the leaders reflected easing tensions between Washington and Beijing after a spasm of disputes.
The New York Times reported that the Obama administration will defer a decision on whether to name China as a currency manipulator — which could anger Beijing — until after Hu’s Washington visit. The White House said no decision had been made.
Western powers say Tehran is violating international nuclear safeguards and have told it to curtail uranium enrichment work, which could eventually be used to make fissile material for nuclear weapons. Iran says its nuclear activities are peaceful and legitimate.
In remarks reported on Chinese state television, Hu told Obama that he opposes the spread of nuclear weapons, but no comments directly broaching Iran or sanctions were mentioned.
“China has always taken seriously the issue of nuclear security, and opposed nuclear proliferation and terrorism,” said Hu.
The Chinese president’s reported comments, and remarks from his foreign minister, showed that while Beijing may be ready to consider new sanctions against Iran, it is not prepared to publicly commit to supporting them, leaving much room for haggling in the U.N. Security Council.
China is one of the five permanent members of the Security Council, each wielding the power to veto any resolution and thus block proposed U.N. sanctions.
U.S. officials, however, were optimistic that Hu’s visit would prove valuable.
“We are obviously quite pleased that ... he is attending something that the president believes is so vitally important to our national security and to international security,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.
Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, told reporters on Friday, after meeting the Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi in Beijing, that the two sides agreed sanctions had “lost their effectiveness.”
“We consider sanctions as opportunities,” Jalili was separately quoted by Iran’s official IRNA news agency as saying. “We will continue our (nuclear) path more decisively.”
But Jalili stopped short of saying Beijing would oppose them, and said it was up to China to explain its stance.
Yang called for “flexibility” during talks with Jalili, who flew to Beijing on Thursday.
In the brief published remarks from his meeting, Yang supported resolving the stand-off through negotiations, but did not repeat China’s long-standing line that sanctions are not the “fundamental” cure to the dispute.
Beijing and Washington have jousted in recent months over issues from internet censorship to U.S. charges that China keeps its yuan currency undervalued, raising the possibility those tensions could spill over into dealings over Iran.
“China clearly hopes to use its very reluctant concession on the Iran nuclear issue as an active step to ease extremely tense U.S.-China relations over recent months,” said Shi, the Beijing-based professor.
At the United Nations, diplomats said the United States, Britain, France and Germany expect to meet with both Russia and China next week to begin drafting sanctions proposals.
A diplomat with knowledge of the talks said on Thursday that China probably would support U.S. proposals to blacklist banks, impose travel bans and freeze assets, but would not blacklist Iranian shipping firms, ban arms imports, or target oil and gas sectors.
Additional reporting by Emma Graham-Harrison, Zhou Xin, Yu Le and Maxim Duncan in Beijing, Parisa Hafezi in Tehran, Andrew Quinn and Alan Elsner in Washington, Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations, and David Brunnstrom in Brussels; editing by Benjamin Kang Lim, Jerry Norton and Mohammad Zargham