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Even If China Comes Around on Iran Sanctions …

by Evan A. Feigenbaum
April 16, 2010

Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl

Today’s Washington Post quotes Brazil’s foreign minister, Celso Amorim, to the effect that China and India share his country’s skepticism about new sanctions on Iran.  But the administration—both on the record and in background briefings—clearly believes China is coming around.  And the U.S. has certainly succeeded in moving China’s position compared to, say, three or four months ago.

It’s tough to know just what’s happening in New York, where representatives of the five permanent members (P-5) of the UN Security Council have been discussing the text of an Iran-related sanctions resolution.  But three things seem clear to me:

First, even if China comes around on Iran-related sanctions (and I actually expect that it will, in part to avoid isolation within the P-5 but also because a weakened resolution doesn’t much affect China’s economic interests), enforcement will quickly become the crucial question.

Take the case of sanctions on North Korea.  China has supported two tough North Korea-related sanctions resolutions, UNSCR 1718 and UNSCR 1874, both of which were adopted under Chapter VII of the UN Charter.  But enforcement has been a challenge, and China’s actions there have come under considerable scrutiny.  I suspect, then, that even if China comes around on sanctions, that will just be the beginning, not the end, of the story.  And there will—inevitably—be a lot of tough back and forth between Washington and Beijing.

Second, it’s hard to imagine that a UN Security Council resolution, in itself, will halt Iran’s progress.  So China may face tougher choices six to nine months down the road than it does today in the UN Security Council.

If Iran neither suspends its program nor shows much leg in future talks, China will face a prospect that it clearly seeks to avoid, namely, of being asked to do more—much more—than will likely be contained in any initial Security Council sanctions resolution.  In fact, China may come under pressure to do more from several countries, including perhaps Saudi Arabia and Israel, not just the United States.

Finally, Chinese interests are implicated by the Iran legislation presently moving through Congress.  And this may soon become a sore point between Washington and Beijing.

As Nikolas Gvosdev argues over at his column, The Realist Prism, “both houses of Congress have passed versions of this legislation, but instead of a rapid conference process that could have sent the bill to the White House in February, congressional leaders accepted Obama’s assurances that the Security Council would pass a stronger sanctions regime at some undefined point in the ‘spring’ of this year.”

Without waivers from U.S. sanctions that the administration could invoke for China, the legislation would quickly catch up the interests of Chinese energy, trade, and financial institutions.  And so we need watch this space closely because the issue of waivers for China will become more or less contentious depending on precisely what China does or does not support in the UN Security Council.

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