London, Nov 16: China has dealt a blow to Western efforts to increase diplomatic pressure on Iran over its nuclear programme by dropping out of a meeting to discuss tougher sanctions against Tehran.
Russia, which like China opposes further UN sanctions against Iran, added fuel to the fire by announcing today that the UN nuclear watchdog would soon start inspecting and sealing atomic fuel bound for an Iranian reactor.
The West fears Iran wants to develop atomic weapons but Iran denies this. Tehran says it wants only to generate electricity.
Political directors from Britain, France, Germany, the United States, Russia and China were due to meet on Nov 19 to assess reports about Tehran's nuclear programme from the United Nations and from EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana.
''I think it's partly related to genuine travel difficulties, but also linked to resistance on the broader question of sanctions from that quarter,'' a European diplomatic source said of China's decision.
Russian state-owned nuclear fuel producer TVEL said inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will begin preparatory work on Nov 26 until Nov 29 on a shipment of nuclear fuel bound for the Bushehr nuclear plant.
''We are ready to provide IAEA specialists with all the conditions they need to do their work,'' Konstantin Grabelnikov, deputy head of Russia's Novosibirsk Chemical Concentrate Plant, which is preparing the fuel, said in a statement.
Russia has given no specific date when it will send the nuclear fuel to Bushehr, but says it would be sent six months before the plant's start-up.
Because of payment delays, the plant's start-up has been put back to at least 2008, Russian officials have said.
EU sancrions: The United States said yesterday it would work with its allies for a third round of U.N. sanctions after the IAEA reported Iran had made important strides towards clarifying past nuclear activities but also said major questions remained.
But some European diplomats say it may not be possible to persuade Russia and China -- both permanent veto-wielding members of the Security Council like France, Britain and the United States -- to support a third round.
As a result, France is pushing for the European Union to impose its own separate U.S.-style sanctions against Iran.
Today, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said the report had done little to clarify matters. ''There remain areas of darkness in the operations which for a very long time were hidden by the Iranians in their nuclear development programme.'' While Russia and China appear to breaking away from the United States, Britain and France, the sixth country involved in negotiations -- Germany -- appeared to take a harder line.
''The foreign minister has made clear that if this is the case we would take up this issue in Europe and consider together what steps could be taken by Europe,'' spokesman Martin Jaeger told a regular news conference when asked what Germany would do if the Security Council failed to approve tougher sanctions.
Iran called on its Western enemies to apologise to the country because the IAEA report showed Iran had been telling the truth about its atomic plans, according to state media.
But US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack responded: ''Look, the Iranian government should apologise to their people for the fact that they have taken them down a pathway of further isolation from the international community.
''That's the apology that should be given here: from the Iranian government to their own people,'' he said in Washington.
Israel, which in 1981 bombed the Osirak nuclear power plant in Iraq to cripple Saddam Hussein's secret atomic arms programme, urged world powers to be tough on its arch-foe Iran.
''Israel believes it is incumbent upon the international community to send a crystal clear message to the leadership in Tehran that their nuclear programme is unacceptable and must cease immediately,'' Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said.