(RFE/RL) -- A top Iranian nuclear official has arrived in Beijing only hours after China signaled its intention to join other world powers in considering new sanctions on Tehran over its refusal to cooperate on nuclear issues.
In arrival remarks, Said Jalili said the relationship between Iran and China is "very important." He gave no further information about his trip.
The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, told CNN that China has agreed to "sit down and begin serious negotiations" with the other permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany (P5 +1) as a "first step" toward imposing a "tough sanctions regime" against Iran.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said there will be an increasing tempo of preparations.
"There will be a great deal of further consultation, not only among the P5 + 1, but [with] other members of the Security Council and other [UN] member nations during the next weeks," Clinton said.
Western powers believe Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons, something which Tehran denies.
Russia and China, particularly Beijing, have long been reluctant to take further steps against Iran, which is already under three sets of UN sanctions.
But Moscow, apparently frustrated at Iranian obduracy, is now willing to talk. That leaves only China, and if Rice's remarks are right, it looks to be coming on board, too.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang, speaking today at a news briefing in Beijing, said his country is seeking a "proper resolution" to the problem, though he didn't confirm that this includes sanctions.
"China is highly concerned with the Iranian nuclear issue," Qin said. "We have been keeping in contact with all the relevant parties to push forward a diplomatic and proper resolution to the issue and make progress."
Joseph Cheng, a professor of social sciences at City University of Hong Kong, explains the dilemma facing China as to whether or not it should join in imposing sanctions.
"On the one hand, China certainly wants to be seen as a responsible world power. Especially in view of the fact that the Russian government has come to toe the American line," Cheng says. "But, of course, China has substantial oil interests in Iran. Iran provides 10 percent of China's oil imports. And China wants to be seen as a champion of the interests of the Islamic powers -- of the Third World in general."
A possible clue that China is intending to join the push against Iran is that it has significantly reduced its exposure to imported Iranian oil. Last year, Iran was China's third biggest source of imported crude. But in the first two months of 2010, China imported some 37 percent less (at 2.53 million metric tons) compared to the first two months of 2009. That dropped Iran to fourth-place as a supplier.
written by Breffni O'Rourke, with agency material