Sanctions on Iran,

As the international community weighs its options on dealing with Iran’s disputed nuclear proliferation, ahead of an emergency meeting of the UN nuclear watchdog in Vienna later this week, Chinese leaders are faced with a serious security conundrum.

China, with its UN Security Council (UNSC) veto power and its seat on the board of the governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency, is likely to play a key role in how the world deals with Iran, including whether the UNSC imposes sanctions on it.

Should Iran avoid sanctions now and be allowed to get away with building a nuclear arsenal, Beijing fears that would prompt the Stalinist regime of North Korean leader Kim Jung-Il to become even more obstructive in future nuclear talks. This would endanger China’s carefully crafted position of a peace-broker on the Korean peninsula and present Chinese leadership with a real nuclear threat across its border.

Yet, should China cave in to pressure from the US and refrain from using its veto power on a resolution condemning Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, that would most certainly jeopardise Beijing’s stable and rising supply of oil from Iran. China believes that to be a serious threat to the country’s economic stability and growth, which its leaders consider a matter of national security.

China became a net importer of oil in 1993 and imports since then have risen sharply, accelerating in recent years. In 2004, it imported 2.46 million barrels per day (BPD), accounting for about 40 per cent of current demand.

Currently, China gets more than 12 per cent of its oil imports from Iran and wants to step up imports of Iran’s natural gas too.

Agreeing to UN sanctions would potentially destroy the value of many investments Beijing has made. In Iran, where US companies are prohibited from investing more than $20 million annually, Chinese companies have signed long-term contracts valued at $200 billion, making China Iran’s biggest oil and gas customer. But encouragement of Tehran in its obstructive attitude towards attempts to rein in its nuclear ambitions would make China become an outcast in the eyes of the White House, and the international community.

Chinese president Hu Jintao is scheduled to visit the United States in April this year and Beijing wants to prevent anything disturbing the delicate balance of Sino-US relations ahead of his official visit. Over the past two years, China has been trying to prevent both its allies Iran and North Korea from being referred to the UNSC but it is finding it increasingly hard as all major world powers are now thinking aloud about the consequences of allowing Iran to build a nuclear weapon.

If major world powers cannot agree on a solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis, then the urgency of dealing with Pyongyang will dwindle and this would render the NPT a dead letter. How Beijing responds to Pyongyang and Tehran nuclear challenges would test China’s commitment to prevent nuclear proliferation.

That is perhaps why Beijing has refrained from repeating its threat about enforcing its veto on any US-led attempt to impose sanctions on Iran, diplomats in Beijing say.

Instead China has argued with even more vigour that continued negotiations are the best way to resolve the nuclear dispute in Iran, as well as the one involving North Korea. — IPS