Why China is unlikely to back Iran sanctions

Beijing is against sanctions as a matter of principle – and because of recent multi-billion dollar energy deals with Iran.

China is showing no appetite for the tougher sanctions that Western leaders have been threatening against Iran over its nuclear program, and would likely veto any United Nations effort to impose a stiffer embargo even if Thursday's talks between US Security Council members and Iran go badly.

"We support the ... proper solution to the Iranian nuclear issue through negotiation," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu insisted Tuesday, following her statement last week that "China always believes that sanctions and pressure should not be an option."

"China won't go along" predicts Willem van Kemenade, a fellow at the Netherlands Institute of International Relations and author of a forthcoming book on Chinese-Iranian ties. "It's a matter of both energy inter-dependence and of principle for Beijing."

"There are still diplomatic ways to resolve this question" adds Tao Wenjiao, a foreign affairs expert at the government-run Chinese Academy for Social Sciences. "We still have time to take non-sanctions ways to solve it."

This attitude bodes ill for Western hopes of imposing biting sanctions on Tehran if it does not agree to discuss the suspension of its nuclear program, accused of being designed to build nuclear weapons.

Iran has shown no signs of abandoning that program, insisting it is for peaceful nuclear energy purposes only. Tehran last week revealed the existence of a second, previously undeclared uranium enrichment facility near the city of Qom.

Beijing's reasons for opposing sanctions

Beijing has both political and economic reasons for its reluctance to see any further tightening of the screws on Iran.

Although it voted for UN sanctions against Iran in 2006 and 2007, China worked hard to water them down, partly because it has always been opposed to sanctions as a diplomatic weapon. Beijing itself has been subject to a Western arms embargo for the past 20 years and it "reflexively and automatically opposes sanctions" says Mr. van Kemenade.

At the same time, China imports nearly 15 percent of its crude oil from Iran, and has recently started selling refined gasoline to Iran, which has few refineries of its own.

Suggestions that if China agreed to an oil embargo, Saudi Arabia could supply crude oil to replace Iranian supplies, are unlikely to meet Chinese objections.

Multi-billion dollar oil and gas deals

Chinese state-owned oil companies have signed three multi-billion dollar deals with Iran this year to develop oil and gas fields there, in a bid to establish a strategic hold over resources not under the control of Western oil firms.

"Iran has bountiful energy resources, its natural gas reserves are the second largest in the world, and all are basically under its own control," former Chinese ambassador to Tehran Sun Bigan wrote in the latest issue of "Asia and Africa Review," published by a prominent government think tank.

China also became a partner this year in a proposed pipeline carrying gas from Iran to Pakistan. Since India dropped out of the project, the pipe is now due to carry gas north from Pakistan into China, indicating Beijing's strategic vision of its future energy supplies.

Until now, China has enjoyed the support of UN Security Council fellow member Russia in opposing heavy sanctions, both against Iran and against North Korea. Russian president Dmitri Medvedev's comment last week that sanctions are "sometimes inevitable" hinted that Moscow might be changing its stance.

That would leave China isolated on the Security Council, but Russian officials have appeared to row back from Mr. Medvedev's statement in recent days.

Anyway, says Dr. Tao, "China would not necessarily follow the Russian position. There is still no hard evidence that Iran's program is aimed at nuclear weapons, and until there is, China will not back heavy sanctions."

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