Israeli diplomatic officials were decidedly underwhelmed Thursday by announcements that the Chinese were on board regarding sanctions against Iran, saying that “until the Chinese say it in Chinese, this saga is not over.”
Susan Rice, the American ambassador to the UN, said Wednesday, “China has agreed to sit down and begin serious negotiations here in New York... as a first step toward getting the entire UN Security Council on board with a tough sanctions regime against Iran.”
China has veto power in the UN Security Council, and changing its position on sanctions would be key to passing a resolution against Iran.
In a sign of a possible thaw in the recent chilly Sino-US relations, the Chinese announced Thursday that President Hu Jintao will attend US President Barack Obama’s summit on nuclear security in Washington later this month, which will be attended by some 40 other world leaders, including Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
Chinese-US ties have been strained in recent months over a number of issues, including Internet censorship, US weapons sales to Taiwan, and a meeting Obama held recently in the White House with the Dalai Lama.
US officials said a Chinese representative made a commitment in a phone call Wednesday with officials of the US, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany to discuss the specifics of a potential Security Council resolution, and that on that basis the US would press ahead with an effort to pass such a measure.
The officials cautioned that this does not mean there is a full consensus yet on UN sanctions.
Israel did not need the cautionary advice, however, with one government official saying that matters were very much still in the preliminary stage with Beijing, and that it was not clear whether problems of translation may not have led the Americans to believe one thing, even though the Chinese may have said something else.
And, indeed, China on Thursday would not confirm that it had dropped its opposition to possible new UN sanctions, as Teheran’s top nuclear negotiator met with senior officials in Beijing.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang would not confirm reports that China was willing to consider new sanctions, saying only that it was “concerned about the current situation.”
“We will strengthen communication with other parties and engage all parties to promote a proper resolution by diplomatic means,” he said at a regularly scheduled briefing, repeating Beijing’s longtime stance of opposing sanctions.
Israeli officials expressed concern that if the Chinese sign off on the sanctions, it is likely the sanctions would be extremely weak, as it would mean the US would have to find the “lowest common denominator” to get all permanent members of the UN Security Council, including China and Russia, on board.
The Obama administration is hoping to get a UN resolution on Iran passed by the end of April.
While the details of the possible sanctions remain under discussion, proposals reportedly have included an arms embargo and a ban on new Iranian banks overseas and foreign banks in Iran.
The officials said Jerusalem has not seen a specific draft of the sanctions. Although acknowledging that the Chinese willingness to talk about sanctions was “a step forward,” the officials said it was unclear what Beijing was promised, or what they said to the Americans.
The Iranian nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, met with Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi on Thursday.
“Your visit this time is very important. We attach great importance to China’s relations with Iran,” Yang told Jalili before their formal meeting.
Just after arriving in Beijing, Jalili told reporters, “The relationship between Iran and China is very important, and it is very important for our two countries to cooperate on all the issues.”
China depends on oil- and gas-rich Iran for 11 percent of its energy needs and last year became Teheran’s biggest trading partner, according to Iranian figures.
China traditionally opposes sanctions. Although it went along with three earlier UN sanctions resolutions against Iran, it has been a vocal opponent of a fourth round, insisting that further negotiations with Teheran were needed.
In Teheran, meanwhile, Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast called sanctions an “ineffective” weapon.
“Raising the issue of sanctions is a threat that has shown its ineffectiveness in the past 30 years,” the official IRNA news agency quoted Mehmanparast as saying Thursday.
China opposes nuclear weapons for Iran but says it should be allowed to have a civilian nuclear energy program.
“Of course Iran would be anxious right now,” said Yao Jide, an Iran
expert at Yunnan University’s School of International Relations in
“China will take this opportunity to urge Iran to make transparent its
work on the program as bound by the treaties of the IAEA.”
Yao doubted that Iran’s envoy could take a tough stance during his talks in Beijing.
"There’s nothing that they can use to pressure China. China’s energy
programs have only started in Iran. And China has many programs in
Iraq. There are many choices for China. And Iran knows perfectly well
that it’s not like they are the only oil supplier for China.”