China stalls UN effort to sanction Iran over nuclear program

The United States is expected Saturday to push for more sanctions against Iran, as Tehran refuses to discuss its nuclear program. But China signals it will resist the idea, especially if new sanctions will be targeted at agents clamping down on the Iranian protest movement.

Vahid Salemi/AP
A woman stands between two police officers during the funeral ceremony of slain Iranian physics professor, Massoud Ali Mohammadi, who was killed when a bomb-rigged motorcycle exploded on Tuesday morning outside his home in Tehran. Mr. Ali-Mohammadi had backed the country's opposition leader.

President Obama may have moved his foot to the accelerator regarding sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program. But a skeptical China is countering his shift by applying the brakes.

World powers meet Saturday in New York to consider a new round of economic sanctions on Iran over its continuing pursuit of nuclear technology – a process Western countries believe is aimed at producing a nuclear weapon. But China is signaling its dim view of sanctions by announcing it will send a low-level representative to the meeting. That makes prospects for action by the United Nations Security Council any time soon appear weak at best.

Mr. Obama recently saw his deadline come and go for Iran to respond positively by the end of 2009 to calls for talks on its nuclear developments.

Saturday’s meeting is a result of Iran’s silence on negotiations – with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton saying recently that the weekend discussion would take up “the kind and degree of sanctions we should be exploring.”

China sending low-ranking official

Countries attending the meeting are the five permanent members of the Security Council – the US, Russia, China, France and Britain – plus Germany. But while other countries are sending representatives at the relatively high level of political director, China says it will send someone from its permanent mission to the UN in New York. Translation: Beijing is pouring cold water on what would be a third round of international sanctions on Iran.

“This coming from the Chinese is no surprise,” says Kenneth Katzman, an expert on Iran and the Middle East at the Congressional Research Service in Washington. “They’ve been saying for [a while] now that the time is not ripe for new sanctions, that the diplomacy has not yet played out.”

US officials say Saturday’s meeting will be useful despite China’s snub.

State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said Thursday the meeting was important “regardless of the Chinese representation,” adding that the US would try to convince China that “the urgency of the situation requires not only additional engagement, which China does support, but additional pressure, which obviously China is still working through.”

China is traditionally cool toward sanctions, but one explanation for its lack of enthusiasm in this particular case could be the shift Mr. Katzman says he is sensing in the kinds of sanctions the West might seek to impose.

Targeting Iran's Revolutionary Guard

“Before, the US was talking about ‘crippling sanctions,’ " he says, quoting Secretary Clinton. But now there’s a shift toward much more targeted sanctions against the Revolutionary Guard and, Katzman believes, against individuals involved in the repression of Iran’s protest movement.

“The whole objective is starting to shift toward, ‘How do we help the democracy movement?’ ” he says.

If China is sensing the same evolution, that could explain its lack of enthusiasm.

China might eventually be persuaded to go along with sanctions against members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps involved in the nuclear program, Katzman suggests, but would almost certainly oppose any measures aimed at succoring the opposition to the Iranian regime. China regularly opposes any action it deems to be international interference in another country’s domestic affairs.

“I don't think the Chinese would object forever to targeting the Revolutionary Guard over the nuclear program,” Katzman says. “But from what we’re seeing it’s pretty clear this [sanctions] process is going to be very gradual.”


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