Iran Nuclear NewsChina ponders its role amid Iran nuclear quandary

China ponders its role amid Iran nuclear quandary

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Reuters: Contention over Iran’s nuclear plans has thrown into sharp relief China’s uncertain role in the crisis as a big economic partner of the Middle Eastern power that is nonetheless reluctant to rile the United States. By Chris Buckley

BEIJING (Reuters) – Contention over Iran’s nuclear plans has thrown into sharp relief China’s uncertain role in the crisis as a big economic partner of the Middle Eastern power that is nonetheless reluctant to rile the United States.

After a U.S. intelligence assessment released Monday said Iran had stopped its nuclear weapons programme four years ago, China’s stance has been ambiguous.

Beijing’s ambassador to the United Nations said that after the report “things have changed”, suggesting his country may not back fresh sanctions on Iran demanded by Washington.

Since then, however, Chinese diplomats have retreated to cautious calls for negotiations, leaving unclear whether Beijing would wield its power as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council to veto the new sanctions pressing Iran to stop uranium enrichment that Washington and its allies still want.

Beijing’s tight-lipped leaders appear to be weighing how the Washington announcement feeds into their delicate diplomatic and economic calculations, said Chinese experts on the Iran dispute.

“We don’t want to base our foreign policy on a unilateral U.S. intelligence estimate,” said Shen Dingli, a nuclear proliferation scholar at Fudan University in Shanghai.

“If we accept the report, we’re saying that Iran most likely doesn’t have a nuclear weapons programme now, but we’re also saying they did have one until about when the Iraq War began and fooled all of us, including China.”

Analysts offered varied views on whether China would support new U.N. sanctions.

But they agreed that, especially in the wake of the U.S. report, Beijing would at most back a narrow resolution that did not impede growing Chinese energy and economic interests in Iran.

With oil prices so high, China wanted to ensure ties to Tehran stayed firm, or at least better then other contenders for Iranian supplies, said Yin Gang, an expert on the Middle East at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

“Any U.N. resolution would have to be restricted to military and nuclear-related trade and limited individuals,” Yin said.

“I don’t think any new resolution would cover oil or infrastructure … If it did, China would surely oppose it.”

Iran is China’s third biggest supplier of imported crude oil, behind Angola and Saudi Arabia. China’s exports to Iran are also booming.

“GO WITH THE FLOW”

But Beijing is also reluctant to risk confrontation with Washington over Iran. China has sought to weaken but not opposed previous U.N. sanctions pressing Tehran to suspend uranium enrichment.

“I don’t think China has an interest in supporting Iran regardless of what Iran does,” said Zha Daojiong of Peking University. “I think China will go with the flow, depending on how Russia positions itself too.”

In a sign that Chinese ties with Tehran are not all untroubled, Iranian traders have recently had difficulties opening letters of credit with Chinese banks, threatening to choke off deals, an Iranian official said this week.

“Iran actually doesn’t place that much hope in China but it thinks it can pose obstacles to the United States,” said Yin, who visited Iran several months ago.

“Iran has been playing the China card. Everyone’s playing each other’s card. But China will make its own assessment of where its interests lie.”

(Editing by Jeremy Laurence)

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