BEIJING (Reuters) -- China today urged intensified diplomacy to defuse deepening tensions over the Iran nuclear dispute, saying sanctions are "not the goal," despite Western outrage at Tehran's new plans to expand uranium enrichment.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang's comments followed Iran's announcement on November 29 of plans to build 10 new uranium enrichment plants in a big expansion of its nuclear program.
Iran's move came two days after the UN nuclear watchdog rebuked it for carrying out such work in secret.
China supported the resolution of the International Atomic Energy Agency's board in a rare public show of exasperation at Iran.
Qin did not expressly rule out supporting fresh UN sanctions against Iran, but his guarded comments suggested the world's No. 2 oil consumer has little appetite for confrontation with one of its biggest suppliers of crude. Iranian oil made up nearly 12 percent of China's crude imports last year.
"We support protecting the international nuclear nonproliferation regime and advocate resolution of the Iran nuclear issue through dialogue and negotiations," Qin told a regular news conference in the Chinese capital.
"We believe that in the present circumstances the parties involved should continue intensifying diplomatic efforts," he added. "Sanctions are not the goal."
Beijing faces a tricky balance over Iran with Western countries urging it to back stiffer pressure, and possibly fresh UN sanctions, aimed at curtailing Tehran's nuclear program, which critics say is aimed at amassing the technology to make nuclear weapons.
Iran says its intentions are purely peaceful.
China is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, so it holds veto power over any potential resolution to censure Iran or ratchet up sanctions.
China is generally averse to economic embargoes, and wants to protect its oil and investment ties with Iran.
Last week, Iranian media reported that China's Sinopec had signed a tentative deal to provide $6.5 billion in financing for oil refinery projects in Iran.
Chinese Vice Foreign Minister He Yafei said last week his government's stance on sanctions against Iran remained unchanged.
Beijing's handling of the issue is likely to be swayed by Russia, which has often stood by China in resisting tougher UN sanctions against Iran, but also has shown growing impatience with Tehran.
Yin Gang, a Chinese expert on the nuclear dispute, told Reuters Beijing may go along with a fresh UN resolution criticizing Iran as long as any sanctions were limited, sparing China's oil flows and investments.
"If Iran doesn't cooperate with the IAEA, then China will basically stand with the other members of the Security Council in demanding cooperation," said Yin, an expert on Middle Eastern affairs at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a state think tank in Beijing
"China will support some sanctions if circumstances demand it, but it doesn't see them as the solution and so will support only ones it considers tolerable," said Yin.