PARIS (Reuters) -- China told other world powers that discussing broader sanctions against Iran was counter-productive, striking a blow to a Western push to rein in Tehran's nuclear program.
Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi told a conference during a visit to France that Tehran's negotiating position was evolving and he wanted to see more direct talks with Iran.
"To talk about sanctions at the moment will complicate the situation and might stand in the way of finding a diplomatic solution," Yang said.
France is among Western powers seeking to have the U.N. Security Council approve a fourth batch of sanctions against Iran by the end of March to prod Tehran into freezing uranium enrichment, which can have peaceful or military purposes.
Russia, like China, has extensive trade ties with Iran and both acted to weaken previous rounds of Security Council sanctions. But a Russian lawmaker said on Thursday that Moscow and Western powers had moved closer to agreement on the need for farther-reaching punitive measures.
The West fears Iran wants nuclear weapons capability from enrichment. Iran says it is only for electricity generation, but has restricted inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and stonewalled its investigations into intelligence indicating Tehran has researched atom bomb designs.
President Mahmud Ahmadinejad said on Tuesday that Iran was ready to send low-enriched uranium (LEU) abroad to be converted into special fuel to replenish the supply of a Tehran nuclear medicine reactor expected to run out of it later this year.
Previously, Tehran had insisted on simultaneous, phased swaps of small amounts of LEU for reactor fuel on its own soil, rather than parting with 70 percent of the reserve in one go.
That would foil the goal of the UN-brokered plan to deplete Iran's LEU reserve below the quantity required to set off an atomic bomb, if it were refined to high purity.
But diplomats said on Thursday that Iran had not conveyed any change in its stance to the IAEA, despite Ahmadinejad's announcement, and Tehran's own envoy to the UN watchdog was seeking guidance from Tehran.
It looked like Iran aimed merely to make a show of flexibility, diplomats said, to give Russia and China political cover to argue for more talks, not painful sanctions, and more time for Tehran to accumulate potential atom bomb material.Ahmadinejad Seeks Deal, Iran Envoy Says
But Iran's IAEA envoy, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, told Reuters
that Ahmadinejad's move underlined a wish to close a deal and the ball was in the big powers' court to engage Tehran on a solution.
"What my president said in fact shows that Iran has the political will to facilitate cooperation.... His message is in fact a very positive, constructive [one], testing the goodwill of others to shift gears from confrontation to cooperation."
China's Yang said the shift meant talks should go on.
"So, the whole thing is still evolving, we think it is very important to concentrate on the diplomatic interaction. I don't think the Iranians have totally shut the door on this proposal."
The White House sought to play down reports of rising U.S.-Chinese tensions, saying the two countries would work together on issues of mutual concern but sometimes disagree.
Asked about China's reluctance to impose further sanctions on Iran, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Washington expected Beijing to work with it on the "next steps." It was not in China's interests to have a nuclear Iran, he told a briefing.
In Moscow, Konstantin Kosachyov, the Kremlin-allied head of the foreign affairs committee in the lower house of parliament, hinted at exasperation with Iran's response. "The problem is that Iran is constantly changing its conditions," he said.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko then urged Iran to communicate its position formally to the IAEA. He said Tehran should clarify whether it was dispensing with its insistence on an exchange of nuclear materials on its territory.
Iran's ambassador to Russia, Mahmoud Reza Sajadi, told Reuters that such issues were not set in stone.
"As the president mentioned, it's under discussion and we are looking for a suitable formula -- not making a precondition," Sajadi said. "We are ready, open for discussion."
The United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China have strived to engage with Iran for years over its nuclear project. But Western diplomats and analysts say they have made virtually no progress because of Iranian evasiveness.
Mark Fitzpatrick, senior fellow for non-proliferation at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, said China and Russia would seek to delay and water down any resolution on Iran, but he saw one emerging eventually.
"China will not block a sanctions resolution. It may well abstain, however," he said.