BEIJING Iran warned on Friday that tightened sanctions over its nuclear activities could undermine its cooperation with the U.N. atomic watchdog and claimed to have China's support against Washington's calls for added pressure.
After talks with senior Chinese diplomats, Iran's Interior Minister Mostafa Pourmohammadi said both sides believed sanctions would damage efforts to defuse conflict over his country's nuclear plans.
"If the Security Council tightens sanctions against Iran, then in the future our cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency will come to a halt," he told reporters.
"In our discussions with the Chinese side, we agreed that resolving this issue through the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is more effective," he said, speaking in Farsi translated into Chinese.
China is generally reluctant to back U.N. sanctions. Iran was the country's third largest supplier of crude oil in the year through July, providing over 12 percent of China's imports and behind only Saudi Arabia and Angola.
Pourmohammadi was in Beijing as a special envoy for talks about the nuclear dispute, as Washington pushes for tighter sanctions in the wake of a deal between Iran and U.N. inspectors that some Western nations fear could be a recipe for delay.
Iran on Aug. 21 agreed to a "work plan" with the IAEA which commits Tehran to answer longstanding questions about its nuclear activities over a rough timeline of a few months, but leaves untouched the country's expanding uranium enrichment work.
Washington and its major European allies have said the plan diverts attention from U.N. Security Council demands that Iran suspend uranium enrichment and grant broader inspections.
The Western powers fear Iran is developing uranium enrichment to give it the capacity to assemble nuclear weapons. Tehran says it only wants a civilian programme for nuclear-generated power.
The United States said this week it would host a meeting of world powers on Sept. 21 to discuss broadening U.N. sanctions against Iran for its refusal to suspend nuclear activity.
Chinese State Councilor Tang Jiaxuan, who serves as a senior foreign policy coordinator, said his country wanted to see Iran and the IAEA cooperate, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
"We hope that all sides will adopt a pragmatic and flexible attitude," Tang told Pourmohammadi, according to Xinhua.
Pourmohammadi said Iran would not bow to pressure.
The Iranian official also stressed Tehran's hopes for stronger economic ties with China, including energy deals and infrastructure projects.
In the first seven months of this year China's goods exports to Iran leapt by 79 percent compared to the same time last year, reaching $4.1 billion, according to Chinese customs statistics.
Iranian exports to China -- a lot of it crude oil -- grew by 31 percent to $7.4 billion.