By Emma Graham-Harrison
BEIJING, CHINA - China's distaste for sanctions and appetite for Iran's oil may hamper Western efforts to ramp up pressure on Tehran after disclosure of the country's second uranium enrichment plant.
The United States and Western European powers want greater force behind demands that Iran come clean on its nuclear plans, following last week's revelation of the new nuclear facility.
China may be persuaded to back some sanctions, especially if Russia joins U.S. and European calls for action, experts say.
But Beijing is likely to flex its power as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council to dilute any proposed resolution that could threaten its ties with Tehran.
"On the one hand China knows that relations with the United States and Europe are very important, but on the other hand it has substantial diplomatic, strategic and energy interests in Iran," said Shi Yinhong, professor of International Relations at Renmin University in Beijing.
"China is in the middle ground so it will go some way to meet the West, but less than half way. It will make some criticism and censure of Iran, but this will be very soft."
The United States and its Western allies have made clear they will focus on Iran's nuclear program at rare talks with Iranian officials in Geneva on Thursday, which China will attend.
Iran has offered wide-ranging security talks but says it will not discuss its nuclear "rights." Adding to tensions, Iran test-fired mid-range missiles on Monday.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says the new nuclear facility was legal and open for inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency -- the U.N. nuclear watchdog.
U.S. officials said work began on the covert plant as an alternate site for possible weapons development as scrutiny at a first plant made it hard to conduct such activities there. Iran says its nuclear work is for peaceful power generation purposes.
The news has triggered calls from Western capitals for additional "sanctions that bite" if Tehran does not come clean on its nuclear plans and address international concerns.
Even Russia -- previously reluctant to go along with further penalties -- showed greater willingness to consider such action.
Yet for China, which has long insisted it does not interfere in other nations' affairs, there has been no change in stance beyond a hint of frustration with Tehran.
Even with neighbor North Korea, which poses a more immediate security threat because it has exploded two nuclear devices, Beijing has been consistently wary of tightening sanctions.