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China said to move closer to US, Europe on Iran nuclear policy

VIENNA -- Washington and its European allies, in a diplomatic coup, are gradually enlisting Chinese support on dealing with Iran and its suspicious nuclear activities, US and European officials said yesterday.

Beijing's backing before a key meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency today adds additional clout to an ambitious international Iran strategy that has recently seen Russia join the United States and Europeans in pressuring Iran to give up technology that could make nuclear arms.

For months, Iran has relied on Beijing and Moscow to fend off a US-backed push to have it hauled before the UN Security Council. While the United States and Europeans have opted not to lobby for referral at today's meeting of the 35-nation IAEA board, they could resume their efforts at a later board session if they judge that the Russians, Chinese, and other key nations will not stand in their way.

A European official said that ''the Chinese are very, very constructive and on board with the [US]-European position" -- engaging Iran on giving up uranium enrichment, while indirectly keeping the possibility of Security Council action alive.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the strategy on how to contain Iran is confidential, was summing up a readout of a high-level London meeting Friday.

A US official suggested the United States had started sharing intelligence on Iran's nuclear program with Beijing. While still opposed to Security Council referral, the Chinese were ''moving closer to the European and US position," he said.

The London meeting was attended by US Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns and senior officials from France, Britain, and Germany, nations that have taken the lead in negotiating with Iran on renouncing its enrichment ambitions.

But Burns later acknowledged that the Russians and Chinese were also present, and the diplomats and officials said that South Africa and Brazil also attended.

Those key nonaligned IAEA board members also have opposed past moves to have Iran hauled before the Security Council. Their presence in London suggested a growing willingness on the part of referral opponents to listen to the US-European strategy.

Just a few days earlier, President Bush met with Chinese leaders in Beijing for talks that touched on Iran and other international trouble spots.

The main issue of international concern is Iran's refusal to give up its right to enrichment, which can be used to generate power but also to make weapons-grade material for nuclear warheads. Iran says it wants only to make fuel, but international concern is growing that the program could be misused.

A plan floated in recent weeks foresees moving any Iranian enrichment plan to Russia. There, in theory, Moscow would supervise the process to make sure enrichment is only to fuel levels.

But Iran insists it wants to master the complete fuel cycle domestically. Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki told reporters in Tehran yesterday that, although his country was willing to resume formal talks with key European powers on its nuclear program, ''naturally we aim to have enrichment on Iran's territory."

Currently, Iran's enrichment program is frozen. But negotiations between Iran and France, Britain and Germany broke off in August after Iran restarted the conversion of raw uranium into the gas that is used as the feed stock in enrichment.

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