Iran's top nuclear negotiator arrived Thursday for talks with Chinese officials, just after Beijing appeared to drop its opposition to possible new U.N. sanctions against Tehran over its uranium enrichment program.
China has veto power in the U.N. Security Council and ending its opposition would be key to passing a resolution against Iran, which is suspected of developing nuclear weapons. Tehran says its nuclear program is for peaceful power generation.
The Iranian negotiator, Saeed Jalili, will hold talks with senior Chinese officials "concerning the nuclear program," Iranian state television reported.
"The relationship between Iran and China is very important, and it is very important for our two countries to cooperate on all the issues," Jalili said after arriving in Beijing.
China depends on oil- and gas-rich Iran for 11 percent of its energy needs and last year became Tehran's biggest trading partner, according to Iranian figures.
China traditionally opposes sanctions. Although it went along with three earlier U.N. sanctions resolutions against Iran it has previously been a vocal opponent of a fourth round, insisting that further negotiation with Tehran was needed.
But U.S. officials say a Chinese representativein a phone call Wednesday with officials of the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany, to discuss the specifics of a potential Security Council resolution, and that on that basis the U.S. would press ahead with an effort to pass such a measure. The officials cautioned that this does not mean there is yet a full consensus on U.N. sanctions. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the diplomatic talks were ongoing.
"China has agreed to sit down and begin serious negotiations here in New York ... as a first step toward getting the entire U.N. Security Council on board with a tough sanctions regime against Iran," Susan Rice, the American ambassador to the U.N., told CNN.
In a news conference Thursday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang would not confirm the U.S. reports.
"We have always and will continue to push for a peaceful settlement on this issue. We are staying and will stay in communication with all parties," he said.
The Obama administration is hoping to get a U.N. resolution passed by the end of April, and gaining the support of veto-wielding China is an absolute must if those aspirations are to be realized.
In a further sign that bi-lateral tensions between Beijing and Washington may be easing after a very trying winter, China announced Thursday that President Hu Jintao wouldin Washington later this month.
It had not been clear if Hu would attend the U.S.-hosted event because of Chinese unhappiness overand a meeting between President , the Dalai Lama.
While the details of the possible sanctions remain under discussion, proposals reportedly have included an arms embargo and a ban on new Iranian banks overseas and foreign banks in Iran.
"Of course Iran would be anxious right now," said Yao Jide, an Iran expert at Yunnan University's School of International Relations in southern China. "China will take this opportunity to urge Iran to make transparent its work on the program as bound by the treaties of the (U.N.) International Atomic Energy Agency."
Yao doubted that Iran's envoy could take a tough stance during his talks in Beijing.
"There's nothing that they can use to pressure China. China's energy programs have only started in Iran. And China has many programs in Iraq. There are many choices for China. And Iran knows perfectly well that it's not like they are the only oil supplier for China."