Iran slipped further into global isolation on Thursday as China, its traditional ally, warned Tehran against its pursuit of nuclear weapons.After a visit to the Gulf in which he met the leaders of the states most threatened by Iran's aggressive foreign policy, Wen Jiabao, the Chinese premier, issued Beijing's clearest condemnation yet .
"China adamantly opposes Iran developing and possessing nuclear weapons," he said.
China appears to have sent a message to Iran that it could not rely on Beijing's unstinting support by reducing its imports of oil at a time when the US and Europe are promoting an embargo on the country.
The Washington Post reported that China trimmed its oil imports from Iran in January from a daily average of around 550,000 barrels to 285,000 barrels a day.
Chinese foreign policy experts said the statement demonstrated that Beijing would not allow its international position to end up beholden to Iran.
Mr Wen's trip to three of the world's biggest oil-and-gas producers was decribed by some commentators as an attempt to seek alternative energy sources, although he politely denied this was the case: "Some people said my visit was to secure oil, which is narrow-minded. I came here for friendship."
"Iran would not have wanted China to make this statement, but Iran must understand that if it comes down to a choice China will not alienate itself from the rest of the world for the sake of single country," said Yu Guoqing, a researcher on the Middle East at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
With a second front of pressure opening up on Iran over its support for the Syrian regime's crackdown on nationwide protests, Tehran has moved closer to global pariah status.
French officials yesterday told Le Figaro newspaper that Iran was training 50 members of Syria's elite Republican Guard in anti-sedition techniques in Tehran. The troop commanders travelled to Tehran following a visit to Damascus at the start of the month by Qasim Suleimani, the head of Iran's overseas military interests. Gen Suleimani agreed to provide training for Syrian officers over the next nine months, an official told the paper. The French said the officers were members of Unit 101 from the elite 15,000-man Republican Guard force mostly recruited from President Assad's Alawi minority.
Alain Juppe, the French foreign minister, said EU foreign ministers would seal an oil embargo against Iran and a freeze on the assets of its central bank at a meeting on Monday.
European Commission officials revealed details of the embargo which would impose a ban immediately but honour existing contracts until July 1.
The full embargo could still be review in July as officials determine the impact so far on oil prices. Greece, in particular, is in economic trouble and relies on Iranian oil.
Iran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, used for a third of the world's seaborne oil trade, if the embargo goes ahead, fanning fears of a slide into wider Middle East war.
But the regime has also hinted that it could be open to negotiations by claiming that it was entertaining a secret invite from President Barack Obama to open direct talks. Iran claimed the appeal was contained in a secret letter to the Islamic Republic's supreme leader that also warned Tehran against closing the Strait of Hormuz.
"They are flexing their muscle (in public), but they are also secretly saying: 'Come talk with us,'" Ali Akbar Salehi, the foreign minister said on a visit to Turkey. "The US government should act in an open and honest way."