An upcoming meeting by five world powers on trying to curb Iran's nuclear program has been canceled at China's request, senior officials from three of the countries involved said Monday.
One of the officials said China cited scheduling problems in asking for the cancellation, and the five now plan to talk by conference call. That call was tentatively set for Dec. 22.
The official said China seemed to have genuine problems in attending the meeting in Brussels or outside the Copenhagen climate summit and did not appear to be seeking to delay it. Still, the development was a setback in efforts to present a unified front on Iran in the face of continued Iranian defiance on its nuclear program.
Because it relies on Iran for gas and oil, China is the weakest link in international attempts to punish the country for defying a U.N. Security Council demand that it stop enriching uranium, a process that can make both nuclear fuel and the fissile core of warheads.
The world powers also have to worry about an increasingly edgy Israel. The Jewish state sees an Islamic Republic with such weapons as an existential threat _ and has repeatedly indicated it is ready to hit Iran militarily.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak urged the world to agree to tough new penalties while again suggesting that military strikes remained an option.
"There is a need for tough sanctions," Barak told reporters in Vienna during an official visit. "Something that is well and coherently coordinated to include the Americans, the EU, the Chinese, the Russians, the Indians."
At the same time, he said, "we recommend to all players not to remove any options from the table," just as "we do not remove it."
In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton acknowledged that U.S. administration's nearly yearlong effort to engage Iran has fallen short and new sanctions are needed to press Tehran to provide more information about its suspect nuclear program.
Clinton's pessimistic remarks come as an end-of-year deadline, set by President Barack Obama, looms for the Iranians to prove that their nuclear intentions are peaceful.
She said the administration has offered Iran a chance to participate in meaningful discussions about its nuclear activities and intentions or face fresh penalties for defiance in line with the dual-track, carrot-and-stick approach.
That dual effort, though, has "produced very little," she said, adding that "additional pressure is going to be called for" to get results.
During seven years of failed international diplomacy, Iran has moved closer to being able to make nuclear arms, even while insisting that its atomic program is meant solely to generate energy.
Its thousands of centrifuges have produced enough enriched uranium to make two nuclear weapons _ even though it maintains the stockpile will only be used for nuclear fuel and not for weapons-grade material.
It has only recently _ and belatedly _ revealed that it is building a second enrichment site and is stonewalling an International Atomic Energy Agency probe of allegations that it had experimented with making nuclear weapons.
Iran threatened this month to expand its enrichment program tenfold, while rejecting an IAEA-brokered plan to supply fuel for its research reactor if Iran exports of most of its enriched stockpile _ a move that would strip it of its warhead material.
The U.S., France and Britain _ the three Western permanent U.N. Security Council members _ are trying to persuade Russia and China to back new and tough Security Council sanctions on Iran as early as the start of next year, should other diplomatic options fail.
But Russia in recent days has moved away from suggesting it would support such a move. And recent statements from Chinese officials indicate that Beijing has not changed its traditional opposition to new sanctions.
While Russia and China signed on to three previous sets of U.N. sanctions against Iran, they also forced their Western Security Council partners to water them down substantially.
China's balancing act on Iran reflects its global strategy of trying to insert itself into the U.S.-led world order, working with Washington when it can _ and opposing U.S. policies when they conflict with its own.
The White House has said Iran has until the end of the month to accept that IAEA-brokered proposal for a swap of most of its enriched stockpile for research reactor fuel, and Barak suggested that Israel was willing to give the U.S. more _ but not indefinite _ time in mixing outreach toward Iran with the threat of further sanctions.
"There should be a time limit for all these attempts to block them through sanctions," he told reporters, warning that an Iran armed with nuclear weapons "will clearly ... initiate a nuclear competition."
"Think of Egypt, or Turkey or Saudi Arabia," he said. "They can hardly afford not being nuclear if Iran turns ... nuclear."
Associated Press Writer Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.