updated 3/24/2010 3:44:17 PM ET 2010-03-24T19:44:17

China agreed to discuss possible new sanctions against Iran for the first time during talks with key nations trying to get the Iranians to return to negotiations on the country's nuclear program, Britain's U.N. ambassador said Wednesday.

Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant said senior diplomats from the six nations — the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany — held a conference call Wednesday on a proposal for a fourth round of sanctions, which the United States circulated in January.

China has not responded to the proposal. But Lyall Grant said that during Wednesday's call, "my understanding is that they have agreed to engage substantively."

He said the six political directors "have agreed that they will have a further discussion of possible measures early next week."

China, which relies on Iran for much of its energy, traditionally opposes sanctions, but it went along with the first three sanctions resolutions.

It has been skeptical of the need for a fourth round of sanctions, which Western powers are seeking to pressure Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment program. The International Atomic Energy Agency reported recently that said Tehran may be making nuclear bombs.

According to well-informed U.N. diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity because the discussions are taking place among capitals, the proposed new sanctions would target Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard and toughen existing measures against its shipping, banking and insurance sectors.

When China's new U.N. Ambassador Li Baodong was asked about the conference call and whether China is ready to engage in talks on possible new sanctions, he replied "very good question." But he sidestepped a direct answer.

'Firm commitment'
He reiterated China's "firm commitment" to preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, adding that this is "very important to maintain stability and peace in the Middle East."

"Forthright solutions should be found through peace talks and negotiations," Li said. "For a long time China has been advocate of these talks. Now we are working along with other members, along with (the) international community, to find a peaceful solution to this issue."

One problem in getting Beijing to engage has been China's recent diplomatic shake up. The Foreign Ministry moved its political director to Geneva, transferred Li Baodong from Geneva to the U.N., and moved China's U.N. Ambassador Zhang Yesui to Washington.

Lyall Grant said "my understanding is that the Chinese official who will now lead on the Iran dossier" is China's former deputy U.N. ambassador Liu Zhenmin, who just returned to Beijing.

Earlier this month, Liu told the U.N. Security Council that Beijing remains in favor of addressing the Iranian nuclear issue through "the dual-track strategy" of diplomatic engagement and pressure through sanctions — a comment which U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice called "important."

'Dual-attack approach'
State Department spokesman Mark Toner, speaking to reporters in Washington, said that during Wednesday's call "all parties reaffirmed their commitment to the dual-track approach."

"But again, this is going to be a long process and there's going to be ongoing consultations as we move forward," he said.

Both China and Russia have repeatedly said they believe there is still room for negotiations with Iran, which insists its nuclear program is aimed solely at producing nuclear energy and is purely peaceful.

Russia's Interfax agency quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov as saying after the call that the six countries "stated that the search for a solution through diplomatic efforts does not and cannot have any alternative."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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