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China and sanctions on Iran: Obama's deft diplomacy

China's support of a draft UN proposal for new sanctions against Iran comes after months of efforts by Obama to recover from his missteps with Beijing. What were the trade-offs?

By Clayton Jones / May 18, 2010

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (left) unveils a sample of the 3rd generation of centrifuges for uranium enrichment in Tehran.

AY-COLLECTION/SIPA/NEWSCOM

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It has been a long march for the Obama administration to win over China’s support for tougher sanctions on Iran. Just a few months ago, relations between the two rivals were at a near low, with President Obama meeting the Dalai Lama and also selling arms to Taiwan.

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But on Tuesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the United States had reached an agreement with both China and Russia to support a draft resolution at the United Nations aimed at squeezing the economy of Iran in hopes it will end its uranium-enrichment program.

What did it take to win over China?

First, US officials had to listen calmly to angry protests from Chinese diplomats over Mr. Obama’s meeting the Tibetan spiritual leader and deciding on the $6.4 billion in weapons sales to the island nation of Taiwan that Beijing sees as its own. Once the fury was vented, however, China probably realized that the US had not really damaged these two “core interests” and that overall ties between the two nation needed to be positive.

But it also took statements from Obama and a top State Department official reaffirming the US is still committed to a “one China” policy regarding Taiwan.

And another trade-off for the US was a decision in April by the US Treasury not to tag China as a currency manipulator, a yearly assessment required by Congress which see Chinese goods as job killers in the US. A designation that Beijing controls its exchange rates would have likely led to US sanctions on Chinese-made imports.

And then there was oil. If Iran decides to cut off oil exports in retaliation for new sanctions, China’s economy would suffer. The US had to line up Saudi Arabia and other oil exporters to guarantee adequate global supplies of oil in case of a crisis with Iran.

Such moves by Obama reflect the importance that he gives to the Iran issue, both to further his goal of reducing atomic weapons in the world and to help protect Israel.

For China, too, the decision to support new sanctions shows its own commitment to nuclear nonproliferation – despite its tolerance for North Korea’s atomic-weapons capability. Beijing also had to overcome its general reluctance not to interfere in the affairs of other nations.

If the new sanctions work in forcing Iran down from its atomic weapons, Obama can take additional credit for deft diplomacy with China.

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