Why China drags its feet on UN sanctions against Iran
China will work to water down any Security Council resolution though a delay-and-weaken strategy that maximizes concessions from both Iran and the West.
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Yet China will pay a high political cost if it is perceived internationally as having blocked new sanctions. Despite a mixed record, Beijing portrays itself as a committed supporter of international nonproliferation efforts. Growing used to the respect and self-esteem that come with being a world power, China does not want to appear an outlier as important global nuclear cooperation summits draw near.Skip to next paragraph
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Real costs to China’s relationships with its most important energy providers in the Gulf would also help to change Beijing’s calculations.
But Beijing has been receiving more carrots than sticks from these countries including Saudi Arabia, its top oil supplier, which fears the strategic implications of a nuclear Iran. Israel sent a high-level delegation to Beijing last month to try to persuade China to support sanctions.
Iranian officials, for their part, have aggressively pursued a strategy of binding China into a tighter energy relationship by offering incentives such as tax cuts to woo Chinese energy companies. Meanwhile, the US has encouraged key Arab states to boost oil exports to China, attempting to decrease its reliance on Iranian oil. So far, China has accepted US-brokered deals to boost oil exports from the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait.
Ultimately, if China finds itself facing unanimous support for sanctions from other permanent UN Security Council members, it will not use its veto but rather will work to water down the resolution though a delay-and-weaken strategy that maximizes concessions from both Iran and the West.
Energy sanctions are already off the table. And Beijing is likely to reject targeted sanctions on several Iranian Revolutionary Guard affiliates with whom Chinese entities do significant business.
In the end, the West is spending valuable political capital to get Beijing to do very little, a questionable investment given the long odds against sanctions achieving their aim in Iran anyway.
With several nonpermanent members of the Security Council starting to voice reluctance to support sanctions, including Brazil and Turkey, Western efforts would be better spent gathering the widest international consensus possible – effectively boxing in China before making a beeline to Beijing.