Is China warming up to more Iran sanctions?

China has publicly maintained its preference for pursuing talks with Tehran over new Iran sanctions. But it has also quietly accepted two international slaps of Iran over the past week.

Vahid Salemi/AP
Iran's Experts Assembly. China has preferred to pursue talks with Iran, but has recently accepted two international moves against Iran.

Is China warming to the idea of a new round of international sanctions against Iran?

As the United States and its European partners continue to press for a fourth round of UN Security Council sanctions aimed at curtailing Iran’s nuclear activity, China has publicly maintained its preference for pursuing talks with Tehran over new economic restraints.

And that matters, because China, as one of five permanent members of the Security Council, holds veto power over Council action.

But China’s quiet acceptance of two international slaps of Iran over the past week may portend a gradual hardening toward Tehran. And such a hardening could eventually pave the way for passage of a United Nations sanctions resolution, some experts in Iran and international nuclear diplomacy believe.

Last week, the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an intergovernmental body charged with setting global standards for combating money laundering and terrorism financing, named Iran to a new blacklist of offending countries. The FATF singled out Iran as the only country whose financial activities are so egregious as to warrant international countermeasures.

Significantly, note experts like Patrick Clawson, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, FATF member China did not block the blacklisting of Iran.

Also last week, the UN’s nuclear watchdog agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), issued a new report finding that Iran’s continuing evasion of international oversight of its nuclear activities raises suspicions that Iran’s ulterior motive is to build a nuclear weapon. Again, China did not criticize the IAEA report.

“Tehran must be concerned that China, a FATF member since 2007, has signed on to a series of agency warnings regarding the Islamic Republic,” says Mr. Clawson. Writing Wednesday on his institute’s website with fellow analyst Matthew Levitt, he adds, “China’s willingness to go along with the threat of new FATF sanctions raises the question of what stance China will take about new UN sanctions, especially if the IAEA’s objections remain unanswered.”

But the developments may also suggest the repeat of a past diplomatic pattern, other Iran experts say. China, as well as Russia, may eventually go along with a new UN resolution – but only after it is significantly watered down following a lengthy negotiation process.

Russia in recent weeks has sounded much more supportive of new UN sanctions than China, but it may also be relying on China’s slow-go approach to hold off any quick UN action on Iran, some analysts say.

“China is not about to take a high-profile position in support of Iran’s dirty actions, but neither is it really interested in backing what the West feels is needed to put pressure on the Iranians,” says Alex Vatanka, an Iranian-American scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington. “It’s very likely the Chinese, and the Russians for that matter, will eventually decide it is not in their interest to continue holding up the sanctions,” he adds. “But that does not mean that what they finally go along with will be anything meaningful.”

The Iranians, Mr. Vatanka also says, “know the diplomatic game they are playing very well and are not doing anything so controversial as to rapidly jeopardize China’s and Russia’s ability to sit on the fence.”

Part of the “game,” he adds, is that Tehran understands that eventually China and Russia may indeed vote for a new sanctions resolution – but only after having caused such a “weakening” of the measures that their vote won’t jeopardize relations with Tehran.

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