Olmert Jiabao 298 AP.
(photo credit: AP)
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert emerged from his meeting Wednesday with Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao saying that he heard things from his Chinese counterpart regarding the Iranian nuclear issue "that were surprising - surprisingly positive and unexpected."
While Olmert didn't elaborate, sources in Jerusalem said that Olmert will have achieved something in Beijing if he received assurances from the Chinese that they will implement the sanctions that the UN Security Council imposed on Iran last month, and that they would not obstruct further efforts to apply sanctions if the previous set fail to move the Iranians.
Israel also would view as a significant development a Chinese commitment to tighten export controls to ensure that sensitive components that could be used to help nuclear development don't get through and find their way to Iran or North Korean.
The feeling in Jerusalem is that these are realistic expectations, and that the chances that these expectations will be realized are greater now than any time in the past. While China is heavily dependent on Iran for oil, importing roughly 300,000 barrels of Iranian crude a day, that dependence is not as great today as it was a year ago.
In January 2006, Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, who diplomatic officials in Jerusalem have said is as concerned about a nuclear Iran as Israel, went to China and reportedly told the Chinese leadership that Saudi Arabia would make up for any oil shortfall that might arise were the Iranians to cut back oil to China as punishment for sanctions.
Whether this is what had a decisive impact on the Chinese is uncertain, but it is clear that in December the Chinese, who historically have proven allergic to the idea of sanctions because of a fear that they may be used against it over issues such as human rights, Tibet and Taiwan, did support the initial UN Security Council sanctions against Iran.
By agreeing to even those watered down sanctions, the Chinese crossed a Rubicon, and Olmert wants to keep up the pressure to ensure that Beijing would support future sanctions as well.
An overall Chinese antipathy to using sanctions is but one of the tenets guiding China when dealing with the Iranian issue.
Another is that the Chinese very rarely use their veto in the UN Security Council, and that they would be unlikely to use it to stop sanctions against Iran. The general feeling in Jerusalem is that even if the Chinese were opposed to stronger measures against Iran, and wanted to give more time for dialogue with Teheran to run its course, they would be very reluctant to use their veto.
Another widespread premise in Jerusalem is that the Chinese have no interest in seeing Iran go nuclear. Diplomatic officials said that in private contacts between Israeli and Chinese diplomats recently, the Chinese have emphasized their opposition to the Iranian nuclear program and have reaffirmed their commitment to cooperate with attempts to stop it.
While Iran does not pose a direct threat to China, Beijing is concerned that a nuclear Iran would destabilize the region, something that could push oil prices way up and jeopardize the flow of oil - both of which could have a devastating effect on China's breakneck economy.