The disclosure today of a secret uranium enrichment facility in Iran should prompt China to reconsider its antisanctions stance. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, China can block any measure the Council might take to punish Iran.
Beijing has long maintained a policy of "noninterference" in the affairs of other countries – unless, of course, the issue is too close to home to ignore (North Korea) or involves the highly sensitive case of Taiwan.
China has its reasons. Generally, it doesn't want to do unto others what it doesn't want done to itself. Specifically, it depends heavily on Iranian oil exports. It also sells refined gasoline to Iran.
On the Security Council, China has had the cover of Russia, which also firmly resists increasing penalties on Iran, an economic partner. But this week Moscow appeared to leave the door open for further sanctions. The change in rhetoric came days after President Obama announced revised plans for a missile-defense shield in Eastern Europe – a shield that had incensed Moscow.
The administration made public its missile-shield decision at exactly the right time, ahead of this week's annual meeting of world leaders at the UN. There, in another example of precise choreography, Mr. Obama pushed through a resolution to end the spread of nuclear weapons.
While the resolution doesn't name Iran or North Korea, it keeps the subject of nukes front and center ahead of the Oct. 1 meeting with Iran.
The US, Russia, Germany, France, and Britain will attend that meeting. And so will China, having freshly committed to nonproliferation, having just observed Russia's wiggle on sanctions, and having just learned of Iran's secret facility.
Will these developments be enough to unite China with other big powers to tighten the screws on Iran? Beijing has had patience so far, and Iran's moves this week to admit to the second facility and to offer up its nuclear scientists for questioning play directly to that patience.
Indeed, Iran's strategy has been to drag out its dealings with international negotiators to gain time for nuclear development, which Tehran still insists – unconvincingly – is a peacetime activity.
China should realize the dangers of the patience game. With Iran's secret facility uncovered, it will take all the diplomatic skill that Obama has to head off Israel from making a preemptive strike. That action could set off a dangerous chain of events in the region.
A military strike, an armed conflict, an arms race – if the Iran problem escalates, there goes China's oil source. Apparently, this is precisely the case the White House is making to Beijing.
China should heed the caution.