Kong Quan, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, said at a regular media briefing on Thursday: "We believe currently we should use peaceful dialogue to resolve the difficulties and obstacles over the Iranian nuclear issue."

"We believe diplomacy is still a good option to resolve this problem. It is beneficial to all sides so we still hope all sides can maintain restraint and patience, and properly resolve the Iran nuclear issue through peaceful dialogue."

He said China would continue to make diplomatic efforts.

Kong also said Li Zhaoxing, the foreign minister of China, had discussed the nuclear issue with his Iranian counterpart, Manouchehr Mottaki, during a telephone conversation on Wednesday, but did not provide details.

The United States and European Union are threatening to hold Tehran to account before the UN Security Council in response to Iran's resumption this month of uranium enrichment research.

Part of deal

Uranium enrichment research had been suspended as part of a 2003 and 2004 deal with the Europeans.

Although Iran argues it only wants to make reactor fuel, the West fears Iran could extend the enrichment process to weapons making.

There is broad public support in
Iran for its atomic-energy drive

Britain, France and Germany - who have been trying to obtain guarantees that Iran will not use its drive for atomic energy drive as a cover for weapons development - have called for an emergency meeting of the UN atomic watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), on 2 February.

The Europeans, backed by the US, are hoping the IAEA will reject Iran's call for a return to direct talks and refer it to the Security Council unless there is a return to the moratorium on enrichment activities.

China, eager to get more access to Iran's oil and gas to feed its booming economic development, would be unwilling to support UN-imposed sanctions against Iran, analysts have said.

As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, with veto rights, it can block sanctions.

Beijing has traditional sympathy for developing countries that try to fend off pressure from the US.