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China reluctant on Iran, despite Obama plea

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WASHINGTON (JTA) — President Obama’s efforts to persuade China to countenance sanctions against Iran appear inconclusive.

A joint statement issued by both nations after Obama met Tuesday with Chinese President Hu Jintao spoke only of "concern" at recent revelations that Iran has accelerated its efforts to enrich uranium and urged "engagement" and "confidence-building steps."

Absent was the usual reference in such joint statements to Obama’s "two-track" approach, which twins negotiations with the threat of enhanced sanctions.

In his remarks at a Beijing news conference, however, Obama said he and Hu agreed that "the Islamic Republic of Iran must provide assurances to the international community that its nuclear program is peaceful and transparent."

On this matter the United States, China and the other major powers are "unified," Obama said, and he warned that "there will be consequences" if Iran fails to respond to incentives to ensure that its enrichment is not aimed at weaponization.

Hu, on the other hand, said the way to "appropriately resolve" the issue was through "dialogue and negotiations" and added immediately: "I underlined to President Obama that given our differences in national conditions, it is only normal that our two sides may disagree on some issues. What is important is to respect and accommodate each other’s core interests and major concerns."

China is a major trading partner with Iran, particularly in its energy sector.

In a briefing afterward, Obama’s aides acknowledged that a gap remained.

Jeff Bader, the top National Security Council official handling China, said it was clear the Chinese preferred to avoid sanctions, and said they did not give an answer on the subject.

"I’m confident that whatever direction we choose to go  — we need to go towards the end of the year — that the Chinese will remain part of the unified" front, he said.

China is critical to making sanctions effective not only because of its trade with Iran but because it is one of five veto-wielding members of the U.N. Security Council, the only body able to enforce sanctions.

China may be the only holdout. The Obama administration in recent weeks has scored a degree of success in persuading Russia, the other reluctant veto on the Security Council, to consider backing sanctions.

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