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And Afghanistan's neighbor, Iran, is being threatened with sanctions because of its nuclear program. Now, those pushing sanctions, the U.S. and European nations, are focusing on the biggest opponent to sanctions, and that's China. As NPR News's Anthony Kuhn reports from Beijing, China faces a balancing act between its ties to the U.S. and its growing strategic partnership with Iran.

ANTHONY KUHN: While the U.S. now sees sanctions as all but inevitable, China insists that diplomatic channels have not been exhausted and that talk of sanctions is premature. Li Guofu is a Middle East expert at the China Institute of International Studies, a think tank under the foreign ministry. He says that sanctions would only push Irans nuclear programs in a more military direction.

Mr. LI GUOFU (Middle East Expert, China Institute of International Studies): (Through translator) 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. This is exactly what China is trying hard to avoid.

KUHN: Li says that the U.S. and Europes relentless push for sanctions against Iran makes him suspicious about their motives.

Mr. GUOFU: (Through translator) Do Western nations really want to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue through peaceful diplomatic means, or are they simply using the nuclear issue as an excuse to achieve other aims such as overthrowing the Iranian government?

KUHN: China and Iran have extensive commercial ties at stake. China is now Irans biggest trading partner. Iran is now Chinas 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 considers the implications.

Dr. JOHN GARVER (International Relations, Georgia Institute of Technology): 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 sea link(ph) communications.

KUHN: Wilhelm von Kaminada(ph) is a visiting fellow at the Netherlands Institute of International Relations. He said that the heirs to the Chinese and Persian empires share common interests as they re-emerge as regional powers.

Mr. WILHELM VON KAMINADA (Visiting Fellow, Netherlands Institute of International Relations): The two think that China being the dominant power in East Asia and Iran in future in West Asia can create a new type of stability that would extend, not only to the greater Middle East, but also Central Asia.

KUHN: China has backed three rounds of sanctions against Iran, but it has first tried to ensure that the sanctions are limited and reversible. John Garver says China may go along this time too, but

Dr. GARVER: China doesnt give things away for free. So if China agrees to come on board on these sanctions or even not to veto them - to abstain, the Americans are going to give something. And Im personally certain that China will be pushing for, you know, look youve got to give us something. Come on, you can't keep making all these demands and not give us anything on our core issues.

KUHN: Garver points out that China was once Irans primary supplier of nuclear technology. It agreed to drop that role in 1997, but it has repeatedly linked the nonproliferation issue to U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. China has recently threatened to sanction U.S. firms that sell weapons to Taiwan. That threat, though, Garver observes, makes it harder for China to object to the use of sanctions as a matter of principle.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

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