Will China Help Sanction Iran's Nuke Program? China has agreed to take part in negotiations over whether to impose new sanctions to punish Iran for continuing its nuclear program. But some say China's business dealings with the Islamic Republic mean it has little reason to support strong sanctions.
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Will China Help Sanction Iran's Nuke Program?

President Obama held a bilateral meeting this week with President Hu Jintao of China. Hu said his country would take part in talks on sanctioning Iran for its nuclear program. Ron Sachs/Getty Images hide caption

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Ron Sachs/Getty Images

President Obama held a bilateral meeting this week with President Hu Jintao of China. Hu said his country would take part in talks on sanctioning Iran for its nuclear program.

Ron Sachs/Getty Images

The U.S. says it has gotten China onboard to discuss a new round of sanctions against Iran, but there are serious questions about whether China is prepared to do more than talk.

While President Obama's Nuclear Security Summit focused heavily on preventing nuclear material from falling into the hands of terrorists, the president and his top aides also lobbied hard for action against Iran.

The administration wants to impose a fourth round of economic sanctions against Iran for its refusal to obey United Nations demands that it stop enriching uranium. Iran insists that its nuclear program is strictly for peaceful purposes, but the U.S. and other nations suspect that the Islamic Republic is seeking the capability to build nuclear weapons.

The administration said it was making real progress on sanctioning Iran when Chinese Premier Hu Jintao agreed to join talks on the issue. But China has resisted such sanctions in the past — and some analysts say it has every reason to keep obstructing them.

Anything New From Hu?

After Obama's 90-minute meeting with Hu on Monday, White House national security aide Jeff Bader told reporters that the Chinese were "prepared to work with us" and said the agreement was another sign of international unity against Iran.

But Flynt Leverett, an Iran expert at the New America Foundation, says the Chinese are following a familiar playbook: Although the Chinese have signed on to three previous U.N. sanctions resolutions, he says they have substantially delayed and weakened every one of them.

The reason, Leverett says, is that sanctions could interfere with China's own substantial investments in Iran, as well as an important source of oil. Iran is China's second-largest supplier of oil, after Saudi Arabia, accounting for about 15 percent of Chinese oil imports.

Leverett says Chinese diplomats are adept at drawing out the negotiations over proposed sanctions and removing any provisions that might have teeth. They have already expressed displeasure over a proposal to ban new investment in Iranian energy projects.

More Than Business?

But other experts say that U.N. sanctions against Iran are important for political as well as economic reasons.

"When countries like China and Russia are onboard, it prevents Iran from being able to frame this as a struggle between Islam and the West," says Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Sadjadpour also points out that once U.N. resolutions have passed, the way is cleared for "more economically consequential" sanctions to come out of the U.S. and the European Union.

"In other words," he says, "U.N. sanctions are the starting point, not the finish line."

Suzanne Maloney, a Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution, agrees. She says it's true that negotiations with China will probably produce a less rigorous set of measures against Iran than if the U.S. was just bargaining with Europe, but that "a resolution that has the support of the world's major powers is more important than the question of whether the sanctions have economic bite."

Leverett says the Obama administration's approach is a way to kill time, in lieu of a more effective strategy for dealing with Iran. He says it's a way "to show various constituencies, at home and abroad, including Israel, that you're being tough on Iran, but you're avoiding constituencies that are trying to push you toward a more belligerent approach."

So far, neither the Chinese government nor its official media have put anything like the emphasis on the agreement that the Obama administration has. In summing up the actions at the Nuclear Security Summit, a spokesman for the Chinese delegation didn't even mention the Iran sanctions.

Chinese news reports quoted Hu as saying only that China shared the overall U.S. goal on Iran and supported "dialogue and negotiations" to resolve the matter.