After months of dilly-dallying, the Chinese government has finally decided to abandon its policy of "negotiations only" with regards to the Iranian nuclear program.
According to Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the UN, China has now officially agreed to enter talks with Western powers about a new UN resolution against Iran, which aims to introduce new sanctions.
True, the Chinese have said they are willing to talk. They have not said that they are going to agree to new sanctions, yet. Nevertheless, this is still a step forward for the EU and the U.S., as China was not willing to even discuss sanctions until very recently.
The fact that Beijing has agreed to discuss these steps is bad news for Tehran. This is why Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, dispatched the top nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, to hold talks with the Chinese government. His hope is that it is not too late, and that he can find a way to persuade the Chinese to back away from the new UN resolution. A new oil deal here, a new gas deal there just might do the trick. It has worked before. It could do so again.
However, Khamenei may find that whatever he offers is too little, too late. The reasons could be related to developments some of which he has control over, and others which he doesn't.
First, there is his refusal to accept Obama's nuclear swap offer. This has made it more difficult to defend Iran's position in the international community. So has the recent exposure about a secret nuclear site in Qom.
There is also the fact that Khamenei may be mistaken about the importance of his country to the Chinese. Iran is important, but not important enough for China to lose out in other areas, which are more vital for its national interests. Taiwan is one example. So far, it seems that by backing Iran, the Chinese have provoked America into concluding a massive $6.4bn arms deal with Taiwan. This undermines China's security and reduces its military superiority in south-east Asia.
Then there is the question of North Korea and China's relations - something Khamenei has no influence over. However, events there have an impact on China's priorities, and the way the Iranian question fits into it them.
North Korea may be an economic basket case; nevertheless, China's influence and relations with Pyongyang play an important part in its regional balance of power competition with the US. There is also the fact that China and North Korea share a border. What happens there could have direct consequences on China's national security interests.
The recent mysterious sinking of the South Korean navy ship, which some believe was caused by a North Korean mine, has created new tensions with South Korea and its backers in the west. The Chinese will be needing their political capital to defuse a situation that is developing right on their doorstep. This could mean that at this very moment picking yet another fight against the west over Iran, a country thousands of miles away in the Middle East, may well be counterproductive for them and their need to resolve more pressing issues on their doorstep.
Therefore the best China may be able to do for now is to warn Tehran that it should take the option of negotiations seriously. Attending talks about new sanctions and even backing them is a powerful way of doing that.
The next question is: with China on board, is Khamenei likely to take notice of a new round of sanctions?
That depends. If Iran is less than two years away from crossing the technological threshold which would enable it to assemble a bomb, then it's unlikely any amount of sanctions would stop Khamenei in his tracks. He may well decide that as Iran is close to making the bomb, it would be worth absorbing the pain.
However, if Iran is five years away from reaching its goal, then sanctions - especially those targeting the regime and key parts of the economy under its ownership - may force the leadership to change its mind.
For now, sanctions, especially targeted ones, are a necessity - not just for the nuclear program, but also for the question of human rights in Iran. In its quest to survive, the Iranian government relies on human rights abuses more than the nuclear program.
To make Tehran take notice of the west's objections towards human rights abuses, the west needs to have leverage. Sanctions - especially those backed by the UN - provide the leverage needed to force the Iranian government to sit down and discuss this issue. Otherwise, there is no reason why Tehran would even bother to turn up to talk.
This article originally appeared in The Guardian.
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