As the U.S. and European nations push for more sanctions aimed at Iran's nuclear programs, attention is focusing on the biggest opponent to the use of sanctions: China. China now faces a balancing act between ties with the U.S. and its growing strategic partnership with Iran.
While the U.S. now sees sanctions as all but inevitable, China insists that diplomatic channels have not been exhausted, and that until they are, talk of sanctions is premature.
Li Guofu, a Middle East expert at the China Institute of International Studies, a think tank under the Foreign Ministry, believes that Iran is at a crossroads in deciding the future of its nuclear programs. He says that sanctions would only push the programs in a more military direction.
"If we persist in sanctioning Iran, isolating it and backing it into a corner, then we may end up with a result which nobody wants to see," he says. "This is exactly what China is trying hard to avoid. We have to do a lot of work, but it is not too late."
Li says that the U.S. and Europe's relentless push for sanctions against Iran makes him suspicious about their motives.
"Do Western nations really want to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue through peaceful, diplomatic means?" he asks. "Or are they simply using the nuclear issue as an excuse to achieve other aims, such as overthrowing the Iranian government?"
Both China and Iran have been on the receiving end of U.S. sanctions, and they share a dislike for what they consider U.S. hegemony. The two countries also now have extensive commercial ties at stake. Following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the U.S. and Great Britain left Iran's markets, and China grew to become Iran's biggest trading partner. Iran is now China's third-largest oil supplier after Saudi Arabia and Angola.
The two countries on opposite ends of the ancient Silk Road are planning oil pipelines across Asia. John Garver, a China expert at the Georgia Institute of Technology and author of the book China and Iran: Ancient Partners in a Post-Imperial World, considers the implications.
"It would mean that a major oil supplier in the Middle East would probably be willing to work with China to deliver oil to China, probably through overland channels, in the event that some type of U.S. and Chinese confrontation led to the interruption of China's sea lanes of communications," he says.
Willem Van Kemenade, a visiting fellow at Clingendael, the Netherlands Institute of International Relations, says that after centuries of strategic ties, the heirs to the Chinese and Persian empires share common interests as they re-emerge as regional powers.
"The two think that China, being the dominant power in East Asia and Iran, in [the] future, [being the dominant power] in West Asia, can create a new type of stability that would extend not only to the greater Middle East but also to Central Asia," he says.
Both countries are concerned about U.S. and NATO influence in Central Asia, and Iran has applied for membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which is seen as a counterweight to NATO influence in the region.
But China also needs to maintain good ties with the U.S. and EU, and so far, it has backed three rounds of United Nations sanctions against Iran. But it has first tried to ensure that the sanctions are limited and reversible. Garver says China may go along this time, too, but not without concessions from the U.S.
"China doesn't give things away for free," he says. "If China agrees to come on board on these sanctions, or even not to veto them, to abstain, the Americans have got to give something."
"I'm virtually certain that China would be pushing for [this, saying,] 'You know, look, you've got to give us something on Taiwan. You can't just keep on making all these demands and not give us anything on our core issues,'" he continues.
More broadly, Garver notes, China has sought and received some form of quid pro quo every time the U.S. has requested Chinese help on Middle East issues, from the U.N. Security Council resolutions paving the way for the first Gulf War, to U.S. counter-terrorism efforts following the Sept. 11 attacks.
Garver points out that China was once Iran's primary supplier of nuclear and missile technology. It agreed to drop that role in 1997. But it has repeatedly linked the non-proliferation issue to U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.
Recently, China has threatened to sanction U.S. firms that sell weapons to Taiwan. That threat, though, Garver observes, makes it somewhat harder for China to object to the use of sanctions as a matter of principle.