China's backing on Iran followed dire predictions

By John Pomfret and Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 26, 2009

Two weeks before President Obama visited China, two senior White House officials traveled to Beijing on a "special mission" to try to persuade China to pressure Iran to give up its alleged nuclear weapons program.

If Beijing did not help the United States on this issue, the consequences could be severe, the visitors, Dennis Ross and Jeffrey Bader, both senior officials in the National Security Council, informed the Chinese.

The Chinese were told that Israel regards Iran's nuclear program as an "existential issue and that countries that have an existential issue don't listen to other countries," according to a senior administration official. The implication was clear: Israel could bomb Iran, leading to a crisis in the Persian Gulf region and almost inevitably problems over the very oil China needs to fuel its economic juggernaut, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Earlier this week, the White House got its answer. China informed the United States that it would support a toughly worded, U.S.-backed statement criticizing the Islamic republic for flouting U.N. resolutions by constructing a secret uranium-enrichment plant. The statement, obtained by The Washington Post, is part of a draft resolution to be taken up as soon as Thursday by the 35 nations that make up the governing board of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog.

While largely symbolic, it is the first such declaration since 2006 to be backed by both China and Russia. And the statement marks a departure for China, which has long refrained from criticizing Iran's nuclear policies. The issue of how China will handle the Iranian nuclear issue has emerged as an early test of what Obama has described as a relationship that "will shape the 21st century."

Given its backing even from Iran's erstwhile allies, European diplomats on Wednesday predicted easy passage of the resolution, which calls Tehran's construction of an underground enrichment plant near Qom a "breach of its obligations" under U.N. and IAEA guidelines. If approved, the resolution will be referred to the U.N. Security Council, which could decide to enact harsher sanctions against the Islamic republic.

"Our patience is not going to last forever," German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, whose government drafted the resolution, told reporters on the eve of the IAEA session.

But while diplomats and arms-control experts welcomed China's support of the IAEA resolution, some acknowledged that it is not clear whether Russia or China would go further and agree to new sanctions against Iran. Attempts to reach officials at the Chinese Embassy for comment were unsuccessful.

"They're expressing displeasure with Iran, but whether that translates into a U.N. Security Council resolution is another matter," said David Albright, a former U.N. nuclear inspector and president of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security.

Iran, which insists that it wants to harness nuclear power only to make electricity, this week acknowledged feeling new pressure from Russia over its expanding nuclear network. A top military commander, Brig. Gen. Mohammad Hassan Mansourian, told state-run Press TV that Russia had reneged on supplying promised military technology "due to pressure form the Zionist lobby and the Americans."

The visit to Beijing last month by the senior White House aides was described as part of a broader effort by the Obama administration to isolate Iran. In making their case to China, administration officials warned that a nuclear Iran not only would raise the risk of a regional conflict, higher oil prices and even interrupted supplies, it could also trigger a surge in nuclear proliferation.

The Chinese were told that "this could shake the entire framework of the international nonproliferation regime," said the official who was familiar with the lengthy analysis Ross laid out.

Countries such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt could start their own nuclear programs, the Chinese were told. "And once Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey go, what's left?" the official said. The implication again was clear: Japan, China's biggest competitor for influence in the region, could go nuclear as well, the official said.

Obama reinforced those messages during his trip to China last week in meetings with President Hu Jintao, the official said. "Both Dennis and the president talked about the consequences of Iran moving toward having highly-enriched-uranium capacity," the official said.

The United States wants China to back sanctions against Iran if Tehran refuses a proposal to send most of its current stockpile of low-enriched uranium abroad for processing into fuel rods for a research reactor in Iran.

China has said it opposes sanctions against Iran; China's state-run energy behemoths have committed to investing $120 billion in Iran's energy sector over the past five years, and few if any of those projects have broken ground. Iran is also China's No. 2 supplier of oil. Earlier this week, Sinopec, one of China's biggest oil companies, signed another memorandum of understanding with the National Iranian Oil Refining and Distribution Co. to invest an additional $6.5 billion to build oil refineries in Iran.

From the start of his administration, Obama has lobbied the Chinese over Iran. The issue dominated his discussions with Hu during their meeting at the U.N. General Assembly in September. Obama referred to the issue with Iran as "a core national interest" of the United States, a conscious use of a term China employs on sensitive issues such as Taiwan and Tibet. "It's their terminology coming back at them, emphasizing how critical" the issue is to the United States, the U.S. official said.

U.S. officials have also attempted to explore ways to help to wean China off Iranian oil, State Department officials have said. Officials from the United Arab Emirates have said they plan to increase oil exports to China. Saudi Arabia is also moving toward closer ties with Beijing that would clearly involve selling more oil to China, officials said.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company