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In the wake of this week's report on Iran nuclear weapons activity, Britain and France have joined calls from US lawmakers to step-up sanctions against the Islamic Republic. But the prospects of collective international action – which has the potential to be far more devastating on Iran's economy – are almost certain to be thwarted by Russia and China.
US lawmakers have pointed to the latest International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) report on Iran, which found "credible" evidence that Iran nuclear weapons work may have continued until as recently as 2009, as urgent cause for stepping up sanctions against Iran. Existing sanctions and Western condemnation have not done enough to quell Iran's nuclear ambitions, they argue.
But while Congress may impose new unilateral sanctions, the US will be hard-pressed to bring about any collective international action on Iran given opposition from Russia and China, two of the five veto-wielding members of the United Nations Security Council.
"We always believe that dialogue and cooperation is the right way to solve the Iranian nuclear issue. Sanctions cannot fundamentally solve the issue," said Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hong Lei today, according to Reuters.
In a statement Wednesday, the Russian foreign ministry called the IAEA report biased, according to Russian news outlet RIA Novosti, and cast further sanctions as an "unacceptable" attempt to meddle with Iran's domestic affairs.
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The Guardian reports that Mr. Hong's Russian counterpart, Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov, said Wednesday, "Any additional sanctions against Iran will be seen in the international community as an instrument for regime change in Tehran. That approach is unacceptable to us, and the Russian side does not intend to consider such proposals."
According to the Guardian, diplomats and observers say that because of Russian and Chinese opposition, "any new punitive measures are likely to be incremental" and could come from the European Union, rather than the UN, although more targets could be added to the UN list of sanctioned individuals and companies.
The report also raised concerns the increasingly divided member countries of the IAEA are each pressuring it to act in accord with their own interests, "undermining" the UN agency's reputation as an independent judge and making its work political. According to the Guardian, Russia and China requested that sections of the report on military aspects of Iran's nuclear program not be published.
While comments from China's Mr. Hong may seem like an outright rejection of further sanctions, China has made similar comments before ultimately agreeing to sanctions. According to Reuters, when the Security Council previously voted on sanctions for Iran due to its nuclear activities, China gave the same line about sanctions not being a "fundamental" solution, but in the end voted for the resolution.
China has repeatedly resisted the imposition of any sanctions that would hinder its economic and energy ties with Iran, which is China's third-largest crude oil supplier, and has criticized the US and European Union for their additional sanctions on Iran, saying that they shouldn't reach beyond UN sanctions, Reuters reports.
As The Christian Science Monitor reported Wednesday, China is in a tight spot. Its skyrocketing energy demands make it increasingly reliant on Iranian oil, but it is a staunch supporter of nuclear nonproliferation. Trade patterns indicate Chinese ambivalence.
Official Chinese figures show that Iran shipped over 20 million tons of crude oil to China in the first nine months of this year – nearly a third more than the same period last year – and that overall trade rose 58 percent from 2010 to $32.9 billion. China is also an important supplier of gasoline to Iran, which lacks refining capacity.
At the same time, however, Chinese analysts say, a spate of major oil and gas exploration contracts between Iran and Chinese state-owned companies such as China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) and China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) has slowed over the past two years.