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China joins big-power talks on Iran sanctions

By Louis Charbonneau

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - China joined five other world powers on Wednesday in a conference call to discuss a U.S.-drafted proposal for a new round of U.N. sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program, envoys said.

Beijing had declined for weeks to participate in talks on a fourth round of U.N. sanctions against Tehran but took part in the call among senior foreign ministry officials from the five permanent U.N. Security Council members and Germany, a diplomat from one of the six powers on condition of anonymity.

U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner confirmed that the call took place, but declined to provide details. "It was part of ongoing consultations on our two-track policy, for which all sides expressed support," he said.

The two-track approach refers to dialogue and an offer of incentives from the six powers -- the United States, Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia -- as well as the threat of sanctions if Tehran continues to defy Security Council demands that it halt its nuclear enrichment program.

As expected, they did not agree on a draft sanctions resolution, though the Chinese said they were willing to participate in an additional conference call to discuss more detailed elements, a Western envoy said.

The United States, Britain, France and Germany had hoped the Chinese would agree to a face-to-face meeting to hammer out the details of a U.N. sanctions resolution to submit to the 15-nation Security Council for a vote.

"China was only ready to commit to another conference call," the diplomat said, adding that it was positive that Beijing was finally willing to at least discuss the possibility of sanctions, something it had refused to do since a January 16 meeting of the six powers in New York concerning Iran.

China, like the United States, Britain, France and Russia, is a permanent veto-wielding member of the Security Council.

Iran denies Western allegations that its nuclear program is aimed at developing a nuclear weapons capability and says its atomic ambitions are limited to generating electricity.

A U.S.-drafted U.N. sanctions proposal includes a possible ban on new Iranian banks abroad and foreign banks in Iran, as well as an arms embargo with international inspections similar to one in place against North Korea, Western diplomats said.

It would also urge vigilance against Iran's central bank, ban insurance and reinsurance of shipments to and from Iran and would blacklist several Iranian shipping firms.

Russia has indicated it had problems with the U.S. draft, but could support less stringent measures, the envoys said. It is not clear how the Chinese have reacted to the draft, which Beijing received several weeks ago.

Security Council diplomats have said it was unlikely the council could adopt an Iran sanctions resolution before June.

(Additional reporting by Andrew Quinn in Washington; Editing by Xavier Briand)