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A senior Chinese official has called for stronger trade and diplomatic ties with Iran, potentially bolstering criticism that Beijing is undercutting U.N. sanctions aimed at forcing Tehran to reveal more about its nuclear programs.
Li Changchun told Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran that Beijing wants to "cooperate with Iran to seize the opportunities to consolidate and develop bilateral relations in various areas," Chinese state broadcaster CCTV reported Wednesday.
Li is the ruling Communist Party's fifth-ranking leader and a member of the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee, the country's top body.
"The two sides should work hard to maintain the momentum of development" of their ties, Li said, singling out transportation and other infrastructure investment.
In a separate meeting Tuesday with Iranian Vice President Mohammad Reza Mir-Tajeddini, Li called for expanded exchanges between companies from the two sides and the need to "constantly seek out new areas for cooperation."
China in recent years has ardently cultivated relations with Iran, seeking to secure energy supplies and investment opportunities for its roaring economy.
Iran provides 11 percent of China's energy needs and bilateral trade reached at least $36.5 billion last year. Chinese companies have major investments in Iranian energy extraction projects and the construction of roads, bridges and power plants.
Critics in the U.S. Congress and elsewhere argue such deals provide crucial support for Ahmadinejad's government and say Chinese companies may be taking advantage of an open playing field as those from other countries pull out.
Two senior U.S. senators are urging President Barack Obama's administration to punish the Chinese National Petroleum Co. for its agreement last year to invest in Iran's South Azadegan oil field.
In a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Republican Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona and Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer of New York also cited two other Chinese companies, Sinopec and Zhuhai Zhenrong, and the Turkish energy company Turpas.
China reluctantly supported the latest round of U.N. sanctions on Iran passed in June, but has strongly objected to harsher measures.
The European Union and U.S. Congress followed with additional new punishing measures of their own to discourage the Iranian government from continuing its uranium enrichment program, which they fear could be used to produce a nuclear weapon.
Iran says its program is for peaceful purposes, aimed solely at producing nuclear energy.
CCTV said Li told Ahmadinejad that China wanted to solve the nuclear issue through negotiations and was willing to "continue playing a constructive role in this regard."