China is a barometer on whether Israel will attack nuclear plants in Iran

Despite fresh UN sanctions on Iran, China beefs up trade and investment. Does it know something the US doesn't about Israel's intentions to stop Iran's nuclear program?

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    Chinese Vice Premier Li Keqiang (right) meets with Iranian Oil Minister Massoud Mirkazemi (left) in Beijing on Aug. 6, 2010.
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One indicator of whether Israel will soon attack Iran’s nuclear facilities is whether China believes it.

Judging by recent actions, it doesn’t.

China’s vice premier, Li Keqiang, told Iran’s visiting oil minister Friday that trade between the two countries is achieving “fruitful results.”

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Fruitful indeed. China’s investors and traders are now filling a vacuum in Iran as businesses from many other nations, especially in Europe, pull out to comply with the latest call from the UN Security Council for nations to impose sanctions on Iran. (China voted for the resolution but is largely ignoring it.)

China’s defiance irks the US to the point that American officials are now openly critical of Beijing. Perhaps the US knows something about Israel’s intentions toward striking Iran that China doesn’t. A prime opportunity for Israel to strike Iran would be this fall, just before the US elections when politicians are most prone to support Israel despite its actions.

In Israel’s eyes, the sanctions need to be bringing down the Iranian regime or forcing it to slow or end its nuclear project. China, however, insists that sanctions not hurt the general economy, only the top leaders, a distinction that may be impossible to achieve.

Sanctions have a mixed record in world affairs. In Iran, the latest sanctions have only begun to hit the economy at its most vulnerable spot – gasoline imports. Similar tough measures haven’t fazed dictators in Burma and North Korea; they hold power easier through self-isolation.

Proponents of sanctions as a diplomatic tool in lieu of war can point to a few successes. Libya recently wanted out of Western sanctions and made some amends for past sins. Sanctions against white-ruled South Africa in the 1980s greatly helped bring about majority rule.

One case that I know personally is the US-led trade embargo of Vietnam during the 1980s after Vietnam invaded Cambodia. By the mid-1980s, Hanoi’s communist leaders had lost legitimacy at home for not being able to raise economic standards – the country faced a famine in 1988. They were asking visiting journalists like myself how to win US approval.

Vietnam did exit Cambodia in 1989, opened up its socialist economy to capitalism, and worked hard with the US to find the remains of missing American soldiers from the war. By the mid-1990s, US and Vietnam began to draw closer. Today, they are even comrades to the point of jointly criticizing China’s actions.

China stands to temporarily lose its third-largest source of oil imports if Israel does bomb Iran. That prospect would disrupt the Chinese economy, something Beijing’s leaders can’t afford. Their coolness toward sanctions on Iran may be the best barometer on what will happen next. Sanctions are a tricky business.

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