China has dealt a blow to Western efforts to increase diplomatic pressure on Iran over its nuclear program 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 on Friday 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 US, Russia and China were scheduled to meet tomorrow to assess reports about Tehran's nuclear program from the UN and from EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana.
"It was due to be Monday in Brussels but unfortunately, the Chinese were unable to attend," a source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"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) would begin preparatory work on Nov. 26 through 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 next year, Russian officials have said.
The US said on Thursday it would work with its allies for a third round of UN 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 -- to support a third round.
As a result, France is pushing for the EU to impose its own separate US-style sanctions against Iran.