Deterring nuclear weapons: China ready to talk new Iran sanctions

China signals it will consider a new UN resolution on Iran sanctions, in a bid to pressure Tehran to verify that it is not trying to develop nuclear weapons. Is China expecting something from the US in return for its cooperation?

Mehdi Ghasemi/ISNA/AP/File
Iranian technicians work with foreign colleagues at the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant, just outside the southern port city of Bushehr, Iran, Nov. 30, 2009. China has signaled that it will consider a new UN Security Council resolution on new Iran sanctions.

International pressure shifted higher for a new round of economic sanctions on Iran, as China signaled to its partners on the United Nations Security Council that it is ready to consider a council resolution.

Until now, China had maintained its preference for dialogue with Tehran to resolve differences over Iran's nuclear program, saying it was premature to move to punitive measures. But China has become frustrated with Iran’s failure to respond to efforts, most notably from the Chinese and the Russians, to defuse the slow-boil crisis over the Iranian uranium-enrichment program, China experts say.

China is following a pattern of diplomatic maneuvering, they add, in which it keeps one eye on its role as an international power even as it tends to bilateral relationships that it deems important – like the one with Iran. If China shifted its stance now, others say, it must be because it has other interests it does not want the Iranian issue to complicate.

“The question now is, what does China want for this?” says Michael Doyle, an international relations expert at Columbia University in New York and a former UN official. Noting that President Hu Jintao will be in Washington later this month for President Obama’s nuclear security summit, he says, “the Chinese know that [the US-China visit] will be a much wider discussion than just Iran.”

China’s shift came in a conference call Wednesday among the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany, the group of countries that has been pushing Iran to accept measures to ensure that its nuclear program is not aimed at building a bomb. US officials and representatives of other “P5+1” countries say China expressed a willingness to start discussing details of a new resolution.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Wednesday only that the group of countries has entered “a period of intense diplomatic engagement” despite a continuing lack of consensus on sanctions and that another conference call of the countries’ political directors is expected next week. But other officials say the shift in approach was clear.

One sign reflecting China’s shift was the visit of Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, to Beijing Thursday. Chinese foreign ministry officials confirmed the visit and expressed “serious concern” about the nuclear program, even while underscoring China’s continuing preference for resolving the issue by “diplomatic means.”

As if to assuage Chinese concerns about any turn from the diplomatic track, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Wednesday that the Security Council’s work is diplomacy. “Action in the Secuirty Council is part of negotiation and diplomacy that perhaps can get the attention of the Iranian leadership,” she said at a UN news conference.

That position reflects Mr. Obama’s preference for a diplomatic solution with Iran. But at the same time, the president has asserted that Iran must not be allowed to become a nuclear-weapons state. Citing what he calls Iran’s failure to respond to international gestures, he has made a shift of his own – to pressing for a sanctions resolution targeting the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and other Iranian officials linked to the nuclear program.

Earlier this week, Obama said he wants passage of a resolution in “weeks not months.” Columbia’s Mr. Doyle says the “speed of the resolution” will be contingent upon how much consensus exists over the scope of proposed sanctions – and how China’s broader discussions with the US fare.

“If the Chinese are first weighing some ... other issues with the US,” like trade, North Korea, and “lowering the temperature” of Washington-Beijing discourse, “then it could take a while longer,” he says.

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