Obama Administration Suggests China Has Shifted on Iran Sanctions, But Has It Really?

By Patrick Goodenough | April 1, 2010 | 4:39 AM EDT

Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, attends a press conference in Tehran on Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2009. (AP Photo/Mehr News Agency)

(CNSNews.com) – Iran’s top nuclear negotiator reportedly was traveling to China Thursday, after the Obama administration suggested that Beijing was coming around on the issue of applying pressure on Tehran over its nuclear activities.
Iranian state media said Dai Bingguo, a top Chinese official involved in foreign affairs, had invited Saeed Jalili for talks that would center on the nuclear issue. China’s official Xinhua news agency also cited the Iranian reports.
President Obama said this week he wanted to see a sanctions “regime in place in weeks,” and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice both made comments implying that China’s position had shifted.
Clinton predicted Monday that “China will be involved” as the U.N. Security Council in coming weeks works on an Iran resolution, and Rice told CNN Wednesday that China had agreed to “begin serious negotiations in New York” with the other council permanent members plus Germany, working towards getting the council “onboard with a tough sanctions regime against Iran.”
Chinese officials have yet to give any public indication of a shift of position on sanctions.
“China has not changed its stance on the Iranian nuclear issue,” foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang told a briefing in Beijing Tuesday.
“We hope relevant parties can show flexibility and make efforts for a solution of the Iranian nuclear issue through diplomacy,” Qin added, echoing the line taken by China for much of the past year.
The state-run China Daily early Thursday quoted a Chinese Mideast specialist, Zhang Xiaodong of the Chinese Association for Middle East Studies, as saying that Beijing now faces “mounting pressure” over the sanctions issue and “cannot single-handedly stop this from happening.”
Beijing did support Security Council resolutions imposing sanctions on Tehran in 2006, 2007 and 2008, although in all three cases analysts described the measures as “relatively mild,” watered down in order to get both China and Russia onboard.
During the council session that approved the most recent round, in March 2008, Chinese ambassador Wang Guangya stressed that the aim was not to punish Iran, but to urge its return to negotiations. He also underlined that the sanctions would not affect Iran’s normal economic and financial activities with other countries.
China is a major customer of Iranian crude oil.
Almost a year ago Clinton used the adjectives “very tough” and “crippling” in describing to U.S. lawmakers the type of sanctions that might be needed should Iran not end its defiance of the international community.
In order to pass, a Security Council resolution must have the support of at least nine of its 15 members, and no veto from any of the five permanent members – the United States, China, Russia, Britain and France.
The threat of veto alone is usually enough to hamper efforts to formulate strong resolutions on divisive issues; actual use is relatively rare (China and Russia both vetoed a resolution on Burma in 2007 and on Zimbabwe in 2008; Russia vetoed a resolution on Georgia last year.)
In recent weeks, reports have emerged about a willingness by the U.S. and European members of the Security Council to accommodate China and Russia – again – by diluting measures to be included in an envisaged new Iran resolution.
“No one in the Obama administration has used the word ‘crippling’ in public in a long while,” the Washington Post observed on March 19.
Iran has for years rejected demands by the U.N. to suspend uranium enrichment. It says its nuclear activities are for peaceful, civilian energy purposes and denies that it is trying to master the technology to manufacture a nuclear weapon.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow