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02/18/10

The Iran Nuclear Issue: The View from Beijing

Source: International Crisis Group

Beijing/Brussels, 17 February 2010: While China resists tougher UN Security Council sanctions on Iran, it is likely to ultimately come on board but will seek to delay and weaken the West's desired measures.

The Iran Nuclear Issue: The View from Beijing,* the latest International Crisis Group briefing, examines China's perspective on the nuclear impasse, including why it is so hesitant to support further sanctions and insists that more diplomacy is the key to a peaceful solution. However, if Beijing finds itself facing unanimous support for new sanctions from other Security Council members, it can be expected to avoid a veto and focus instead on ensuring that punitive measures will not harm its interests.

"China lacks the West's sense of fundamental urgency about the Iran nuclear issue", explains Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, Crisis Group's China Adviser and North East Asia Project Director. "It is yet to be convinced that Tehran is on the cusp of achieving the capabilities to highly enrich and weaponise its uranium, or that there is an imminent threat of military confrontation in the Middle East".

China is most likely to pursue a delay-and-weaken strategy with regard to the sanctions the West says are needed to bring Iran into serious negotiations on its controversial nuclear program. While China has stated that it supports a "nuclear-free" Middle East, it does not want to sacrifice its deepening economic ties with Tehran, especially in oil. But Beijing's approach also reflects its consistent historical opposition to sanctions, doubt about their efficacy and a tactical hedge. By using delaying tactics and giving each side part of what its wants, China maximises benefits from both.

In addition to its need for energy, China's relationship with Tehran is shaped by broader foreign and domestic policy calculations. Strong bilateral ties strengthen Beijing's position in the Middle East and Central Asia, China's "Grand Periphery" which has become a priority focus of its geo-strategy. They also help balance Washington's influence in the region. China and Iran share a sense of suspicion towards the West - reinforced by common experience of being the target of sanctions and a similar perception of U.S. interference in their internal politics. In China's eyes, Iran's regional power will expand in future, meaning that good relations could serve its interests for years to come.

However, "Beijing still values its relations with Washington more than its ties to Tehran", says Robert Templer, Crisis Group's Asia Program Director. "If China finds itself isolated on the Security Council, it will not side with Iran at the expense of that relationship but will instead negotiate hard to ensure that sanctions are as weak as possible".

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