China, key Iran ally, backs nuclear sanctions

Beijing's latest move stems from its frustration with Tehran's growing influence, analysts say

Published June 10, 2010 5:15PM (EDT)

China's about-face in backing new nuclear sanctions against Iran was borne out of frustration with Tehran's intransigence and a desire to display global leadership alongside its rising financial and diplomatic clout, analysts said Thursday.

A key Iranian ally, China had been a vocal opponent of a fourth round of sanctions and could have used its power as one of five permanent U.N. Security Council members to veto the resolution.

Instead, Beijing spurned the opportunity to play spoiler, voting Wednesday in favor of the resolution targeting Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard, ballistic missiles and nuclear-related investments in a bid to compel Tehran to cooperate with international inspectors.

"China hopes that this method will show Iran that China has principles and is a responsible major nation," said Yao Jide, an Iran expert at Yunnan University's School of International Relations.

However, China's Foreign Ministry said Thursday its support for fresh sanctions should not block efforts to find a diplomatic solution, and called for renewed attempts to bring Iran back to the negotiating table.

"China has repeated on many occasions that the resolution adopted by the U.N. Security Council does not mean that the door to diplomatic efforts is closed," said spokesman Qin Gang.

Beijing has said it opposes nuclear weapons for Iran but supports an Iranian civilian nuclear energy program. China traditionally opposes sanctions, but it went along with the first three sanctions resolutions against Iran.

Tehran insists its program is peaceful, while the U.S. and its allies say Iran is trying to produce nuclear weapons. They want Iran to suspend uranium enrichment and start negotiations aimed at ensuring that it uses nuclear technology only for peaceful purposes.

While details of the negotiations weren't known, Beijing appeared to have been satisfied that the sanctions would not harm its economic ties with Iran, with whom bilateral trade reached at least $36.5 billion last year. Iran meets 11 percent of China's energy needs and Chinese companies have major investments in Iranian energy extraction projects and the construction of roads, bridges and power plants.

China had sought to avoid a sanctions vote, saying earlier this year that it was wrong to even discuss such measures as long as a negotiated settlement remained possible.

Its support for sanctions came about only in recent months after intense lobbying by the United States and its allies, including Israel. Beijing was confronted with the prospect of diplomatic isolation over the issue, especially as fellow skeptic Russia began signaling it was losing patience with Tehran.

Israel may have also played a role in persuading China to back harsher sanctions against Iran, according to Israeli officials. In recent weeks, three Israeli delegations have gone to China, and all discussed the Iranian nuclear program, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the talks were secret.

Israel considers Iran a strategic threat because of its nuclear program, long-range missiles and repeated references by its leaders to the destruction of Israel. The Israeli delegations laid out their intelligence and concerns about Tehran's nuclear program to China.

The officials said the Israeli delegations did not bring up the possibility of an Israeli strike on Iran in the talks with the Chinese government, though it might have been discussed at the initiative of the Chinese.

Western analysts had warned that China's refusal to back sanctions risked denting its international reputation at a time when it is seeking a global leadership role.

Relations might have been harmed with crucial trading partners in the European Union, while Washington -- for which the Middle East is a foreign policy linchpin -- could have retaliated with further arms sales to Taiwan or by withdrawing support for Chinese interests in Iraqi oil contracts and Afghan copper mining.

Conflict over Iran would almost certainly pinch oil supplies and send prices soaring, inflicting pain on China's economy at a time when the government is spending billions of dollars to stimulate growth. If the U.S. and others deployed sanctions on their own, Chinese companies that deal with Iran could have found themselves barred from business in other nations.

Meanwhile, efforts to convince Tehran to ease its defiance and prove its peaceful intentions seemed to be going nowhere. Iran had sought to counter Western pressure with a lobbying campaign of its own, but its continued defiance convinced Beijing that sanctions were justified, Yao and other scholars said.

"Of course, Iran hoped China would veto the resolution, but conditions for doing so were not ripe," said Zhu Weilie, director of the Middle East Studies Institute at Shanghai's University of International Studies.

Zhu called Wednesday's result the best possible outcome for Beijing, balancing its relationship with Iran and its desire to be seen as a mature international stakeholder.

"China has achieved its diplomatic goal after having made many rounds of consultation with relevant countries," Zhu said. "As a responsible large country, China should show its stance."

It wasn't clear what effect the vote would have on relations between Tehran and Beijing. Russia, which also backed sanctions, has already been on the receiving end of Iranian ire, with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad warning Russian leaders last month "to correct themselves, and not let the Iranian nation consider them among its enemies."

Ahmadinejad was set to tour the World Expo in Shanghai on Friday, but he was not expected to hold talks with senior Chinese leaders. He also skipped Thursday's summit in Uzbekistan of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization attended by Chinese President Hu Jintao.


Associated Press Writers Mark Lavie in Jerusalem, Anita Chang and researchers Xi Yue and Yu Bing in Beijing contributed to this report.

By Christopher Bodeen

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