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China Repeats Call For Diplomatic Resolution On Iran

BEIJING (Reuters) -- China has repeated its longstanding call for greater diplomatic efforts to resolve the standoff over Iran's nuclear program, despite growing pressure for strong UN action against Tehran.

Iran has identified potential sites for 10 new nuclear enrichment plants and construction of two of them could begin this year, a nuclear energy official said on February 22.

Iran's uranium enrichment, in defiance of UN Security Council sanctions, has spurred world powers to consider tougher measures to halt what the West fears is a covert nuclear weapons drive.

Tehran denies it wants to build an atomic bomb and says its enrichment is for electricity generation and medical isotopes.

China, a veto-holding member of the UN Security Council, has long said sanctions are not an effective tool for resolving diplomatic disputes, especially over Iran.

"China believes that in the current stage all relevant parties should continue deepening diplomatic efforts to maintain and push forward the process of talks and negotiations," Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told a news briefing.

"We hope relevant parties can show flexibility to create conditions for completely and properly solving the Iran nuclear problem through diplomatic efforts."

Less than a week ago, the UN's nuclear watchdog said it feared Tehran may be working to develop a nuclear-armed missile.

China 'Takes Note' Of IAEA Report

Qin said that China had "taken note" of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report. He did not elaborate, saying only that China was firmly in favor of nuclear non-proliferation.

China's position on sanctions reflects anger with Western sanctions China has faced, especially after the 1989 armed crackdown on pro-democracy protests around Tiananmen Square.

It also reflects China's longstanding stance that it observes "non-interference" in other countries' domestic affairs -- a position that has often amounted to wanting to insulate its economic flows from diplomatic disputes.

But Beijing has backed previous UN-approved sanctions against North Korea and Iran over their nuclear activities.

China recently said it would slap unilateral sanctions on U.S. firms selling weapons to Taiwan, the self-ruled island that Beijing claims as its own.

Beijing sees Iran as an important oil supplier and trade partner and as a major strategic actor in the Middle East, where China is buying growing volumes of oil.

China is the world's No. 2 crude oil consumer and Iran has the world's second-largest crude oil reserves, but desperately needs investment to develop them.

Since the 1990s, China has cast itself as a responsible supporter of nuclear non-proliferation safeguards.

That desire to be a respected global player and not be isolated from dominant international opinion could weigh in favor of China allowing fresh sanctions against Iran, especially with Russia indicating it may back sanctions.