BEIJING - China rebuked Iran on Monday for stopping oil sales to British and French companies at the weekend, calling for renewed efforts at dialogue over an escalating stand-off over Tehran's controversial nuclear program.China has repeatedly called for talks over Tehran's efforts to enrich its own uranium, which Western countries suspect is aimed at obtaining nuclear weapons. Iran has said the enrichment is for power generation."We have consistently upheld dialogue and negotiation as the way to resolve disputes between countries, and do not approve of exerting pressure or using confrontation to resolve issues," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said when asked about Iran's ban on oil sales to British and French firms. China "hopes all sides can get back onto the correct path of dialogue as soon as possible," Hong told a daily news briefing.China is one of the largest users of Iranian oil, buying around 20 percent of total exports.The European Union enraged Tehran last month when it decided to impose a boycott on its oil from July 1. Iran, the world's fifth-largest oil exporter, responded by threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz, the main Gulf oil shipping lane.On Sunday, its oil ministry went a step further, announcing Iran has now stopped selling oil to French and British companies, a move which will however have little or no impact on supplies reaching France or Britain.
French and Anglo/Dutch oil majors Total and Shell have been big buyers of Iranian crude but Total had already stopped buying from Iran and Shell had scaled back sharply.Iran has ramped up rhetoric in recent weeks while also expressing willingness to resume negotiations on its nuclear program. Western powers have cautiously not ruled out the use of force if the program continues. But speculation is high Israel may attack nuclear facilities in Iran.Hong said the use of force would be the wrong answer."Attacking Iran militarily would only worsen the confrontation and lead to further upheaval in the region," he said.IAEA inspectors arrive in TehranAlso Monday, a team of UN inspectors arrived in Tehran for talks on Iran's disputed nuclear program."I'm still pessimistic that Iran will demonstrate the substantive cooperation necessary," one envoy said in Vienna. Yet the outcome of this week's discussions is important and will be watched closely because it could either intensify the standoff or offer scope to reduce tensions.