Ambassadors from China and five major powers met for the first time Thursday to discuss possible new sanctions against Iran, which is refusing to suspend uranium enrichment and start negotiations on its suspect nuclear program.
After nearly three hours of talks, Russia's UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told reporters "we all agreed that it was a good discussion."
Churkin cautioned, however, that there were difficult negotiations on the three previous resolutions imposing sanctions against Iran and said he expects difficult negotiations on a fourth sanctions resolution as well.
"I don't think any of us want to impose sanctions," he said. "What we want to have is a diplomatic solution, and all sorts of constructive proposals have been made to Iran. So if ... Iran wants to negotiate they should start negotiating."
The US, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China have adopted a "dual-track" approach, using diplomacy and sanctions, to try to get Iran to suspend uranium enrichment and join negotiations on its nuclear program. For more than four years, the six have been unsuccessful, despite offers of incentives.
Last year, the six powers endorsed a confidence-building proposal backed by the International Atomic Energy agency to ship low-enriched uranium from Iran to Russia for 20-percent enrichment and then to France for processing into fuel rods for Teheran's research reactor. Iran has not agreed to this either.
The UN nuclear agency reported recently that Iran may be making nuclear bombs. But Iran insists that its nuclear program is aimed solely at producing nuclear energy and is purely peaceful.
The United States and its Western allies have been pressing for new sanctions since January when US Ambassador Susan Rice circulated elements for a new resolution to the five other nations that have been trying to rein in Iran's nuclear program.
China, which relies on Iran for 11 percent of its energy needs and last year became Teheran's biggest trading partner, only agreed to discuss possible new sanctions during a phone conversation in late March among political directors of the six countries.
Churkin arrived for Thursday's meeting with China's new Ambassador Li Baodong, who called the negotiations "important" and said afterward that the talks had been "very constructive."
China and Russia traditionally oppose sanctions, even though they backed the first three sanctions resolutions. Both countries have repeatedly said they believe there is still room for negotiations with Iran.
"The dual-track approach is actually focused on diplomacy," Li told reporters.
Germany's deputy UN ambassador Martin Ney said "the aim of these negotiations is to bring Iran back to the negotiating table, and further negotiations both in the capitals and here in New York will follow."
Li said ambassadors from the six countries would meet again "next week."
At Thursday's meeting, Ney said the ambassadors discussed the proposed text of a new sanctions resolution.
Well-informed diplomats said it will target Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard, which has major interests in nuclear proliferation activities. The proposed new sanctions would also toughen existing measures against Iran's shipping, banking and insurance sectors and target additional companies and individuals connected to its nuclear program, the diplomats said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the US proposal has not been released publicly.
Speaking from Prague, where he signed a new arms reduction treaty with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Thursday, US President Barack Obama said negotiations with Russia also yielded closer cooperation toward achieving sanctions against Iran.
"We cannot turn a blind eye to this," Medvedev said.
But the Russian president was careful to add that Russia would favor only "smart" sanctions with specific targets and which might change Iran's behavior.
Later, Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Russia would not endorse a total embargo on the delivery of refined petroleum products into Iran. UN diplomats said a ban on delivery of gasoline and other refined fuel was ruled out earlier because of the impact on civilians.
There is no deadline for a new resolution but Obama has urged Security Council action in weeks.
Some countries would also like a vote before the start of a major conference at UN headquarters in early May to review the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the cornerstone of global efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons.
US Ambassador Susan Rice said Thursday negotiations "are intensifying" and called the discussion "worthwhile."
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley, speaking to reporters in Washington, said he expects Iran to be "a significant topic of discussion" in bilateral meetings that Obama and US officials will be holding on the sidelines of a 47-nation summit on April 12-13 on securing nuclear material to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands.
He said the US is "very mindful" of Obama's target for a new sanctions resolution and "we want to get this done as quickly as possible."
The discussions on a fourth sanctions resolution mark a departure from negotiations on the three earlier resolutions.
Political directors from the six countries, who are high-ranking
diplomats, agreed on the outlines of the first three resolutions before
negotiations moved to the UN where ambassadors hammered out the final
text. This time, the political directors are leaving the negotiations
to the ambassadors, diplomats said.
Whether this will speed agreement — as the US and others are pressing for — remains to be seen.
the six countries agree on a text, it must then be presented to the 10
non-permanent members of the Security Council for further negotiations.
Several have already indicated their opposition to sanctions, including
Brazil, Turkey and Lebanon.