By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 5, 2010; A07
China on Thursday threw a roadblock in the path of a U.S.-led push for sanctions against Iran, saying that it is important to continue negotiations as long as Iran appears willing to consider a deal to give up some of its enriched uranium.
"To talk about sanctions at the moment will complicate the situation and might stand in the way of finding a diplomatic solution," Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said at a conference in Paris.
After months of spurning the proposed deal, which would provide Iran with fuel for a medical reactor, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad showed a suddenly renewed interest in it this week just as France, a strong advocate of sanctions, assumed the rotating presidency of the U.N. Security Council. French Prime Minister François Fillon said Wednesday that he would ask the United Nations to adopt a resolution imposing "strong sanctions" against Iran because of its nuclear program.
U.S. officials had initially hoped they could push through a U.N. sanctions resolution this month or next, but China's statement Thursday suggests that it may take months of haggling to achieve that goal. That, in turn, would upend the delicate diplomatic process needed to fulfill the Obama administration's wish to see "crippling sanctions" in place early this year.
China holds a veto as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, so any U.N. sanctions resolution will be relatively weak. Indeed, one diplomat said, many of the ideas the Americans have floated, such as sanctioning Iran's central bank, are "on the conservative end of the spectrum" in order to win quick approval. But diplomats said the United States cannot leapfrog to the tougher sanctions now without losing China's support for a U.N. resolution.
Yet some sort of U.N. resolution is necessary before France, Britain and Germany can win approval for what is hoped will be even tougher European Union sanctions. And the European sanctions must be in place before the United States can try to persuade nations such as Japan and the United Arab Emirates to join a coalition of countries willing to impose the promised "crippling sanctions."
Russia, which had been skeptical of sanctions, has toughened its stance recently, frustrated by Iran's spurning of the reactor deal, which would have involved Russia. But now Ahmadinejad appears to have driven a wedge between China and the other players in the effort to restrain Iran's nuclear ambitions.
U.S. officials who have read Ahmadinejad's televised comments this week in full said they do not think he was trying to state a new position, and diplomats say Iran has not officially notified the International Atomic Energy Agency of any change in its stance on the deal. But subsequent news reports have given that impression, and China has seized on Ahmadinejad's remarks to dampen any enthusiasm for quick action.
In Paris on Thursday, Yang, China's foreign minister, suggested that Beijing might not oppose Iran's continuing to enrich uranium. "The whole thing is still evolving," he said. "We should seek every chance for an appropriate and mutually acceptable solution to this issue -- that is, how to enrich uranium to a certain extent."
China's resistance to any discussion of sanctions comes during a recent deterioration in its relations with the United States. In interviews over the past few months, senior U.S. officials have said they view their engagement with China over the Iranian nuclear issue as a lengthy process of persuading China to shed its short-term view of the matter.
Senior National Security Council officials Dennis Ross and Jeffrey Bader went to China last year before President Obama's November trip there to lay out to the Chinese the dangers of allowing Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon. Ross and Bader told China about U.S. concerns that Israel could bomb Iranian nuclear installations, sparking a huge increase in the price of oil.
After meeting with Yang in London last week, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton publicly raised this argument. "China will be under a lot of pressure to recognize the destabilizing impact that a nuclear-armed Iran would have in the Gulf, from which they receive a significant percentage of their oil supplies," she said.
Wang Baodong, a spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, said Thursday that "China is against Iran developing and owning nuclear weapons [and] stands for safeguarding the international non-proliferation system and maintenance of peace and stability in the Middle East." But in light of Ahmadinejad's comments, he said, "we believe there's still room for diplomatic settlement of the Iranian nuclear issue, and we don't endorse discussing sanctions for now."
The effort to secure progress in nuclear talks has been complicated by a string of planned personnel moves involving China's key negotiators, including its U.N. ambassador, Zhang Yesui, who is headed to Washington next month to serve as ambassador to the United States. China's political director, He Yafei, who is responsible for representing his country in ongoing talks among the major powers' political directors, is set to move to Geneva to head the country's mission there. The current Chinese ambassador in Geneva will come to New York to run China's U.N. mission.
"We don't know who to call," one senior U.N. Security Council diplomat said.
Staff writers John Pomfret in Washington and Colum Lynch at the United Nations contributed to this report.