Olmert seeks tougher stand on Iran from China

BEIJING (Reuters) — Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert arrived in Beijing on Tuesday aiming to lobby China to close ranks with Western powers against Iran’s nuclear programme.

China backed a UN Security Council resolution last month imposing sanctions on Iran’s trade in sensitive nuclear materials and technology, an attempt to halt uranium enrichment work that could lead to bomb production.

But like fellow permanent council member Russia, China has also voiced a preference for negotiations with Tehran, which says its nuclear ambitions are peaceful — an approach often at odds with that of the United States and some European nations.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has called for Israel to be “wiped off the map”, prompting concern that Israel, which is assumed to have the Middle East’s only atomic arsenal, could launch a preemptive strike if it deemed diplomacy at a dead-end.

But a senior Olmert aide said he was encouraged by the recent Security Council vote and hoped China would stand fast.

“We believe China does not want to see a nuclear-armed Iran,” the aide told Reuters on condition of anonymity. “The challenge now is to preserve China’s resolve, especially in matters of Iranian compliance.”

Booming trade

Olmert is the third Israeli prime minister to visit China since relations were established 15 years ago, a period that has seen bilateral trade boom to more than $3 billion, and forecast to reach $5 billion by 2008.

But that pales next to China’s mammoth consumption of Iranian oil, which makes up about 12 per cent of its crude imports.

An Olmert aide said that while the prime minister would ask the Chinese to understand Israel’s concerns about Iran, he also realised that “energy supplies are China’s main priority”.

Even a show of assent by Beijing could help shore up Olmert’s standing with the Israeli public, hard-hit by corruption scandals, anger at the inconclusive war in Lebanon and a diplomatic deadlock with the Palestinians.

“If nothing else, Olmert needs to take home some sort of Chinese declaration of good intent on the Iranian issue,” the aide said.

Olmert visited an Israeli-sponsored experimental farm outside Beijing on Tuesday. He was expected to meet Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and Commerce Minister Bo Xilai on Wednesday, and President Hu Jintao on Thursday.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, Liu Jianchao, said the visit was a chance to “consolidate friendly ties”. “We can have an exchange of views on issues of common interest including the Middle East issue and the Iranian nuclear issue,” he told a regular news conference.

Olmert is following hard on the heels of Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, who visited Beijing last week.

The Iranian news agency IRNA quoted Larijani as saying that Tehran remained committed to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which assures signatories the right to develop nuclear fuel for energy purposes but bans bomb making.

“But if we were further threatened, our conditions too would be subject to alterations,” Larijani said.

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