UNITED NATIONS - Without hesitation, the Chinese ambassador to the United Nations announced Beijing was not ready to impose additional sanctions against Iran, suspected by Western nations of trying to build an atomic bomb under the guise of nuclear energy.
"This is not the right time or right moment for sanctions because diplomatic efforts are still going on," Ambassador Zhang Yesui told reporters Tuesday. "The efforts aimed at diplomatic negotiations on the Iranian nuclear issue still need some time and patience...A peaceful settlement of the Iranian nuclear issue through diplomatic means will be the best option, and is also in the common interest of the international community because sanctions itself is not an end."
The United States, Britain and France, permanent Security Council members, can impose unilateral sanctions but they need Russia and China to get them through the 15-member Council. And any Western sanctions can be subverted by trade moving through China and most likely Russia, as well as a host of other nations.
Usually Beijing follows Moscow's lead on Iran, while China leads the way on North Korea. But diplomats said Beijing was taking a tougher line, independent from Russia, fearing sanctions would encroach on trade and on oil exports.
In response to China's comments, P.J. Crowley, a State Department spokesman said, "It's no secret that China and the United States look at the utility of sanctions differently," adding: "We are going to continue our discussions, and we would expect to move forward with this in the coming weeks."
Trying to walk a fine line, the Obama administration had set a deadline for the end of 2009 for Tehran to agree to exchange 75 percent of its low enriched uranium for nuclear fuel rods, thereby reducing its stockpile and limiting its ability to escalate a weapons program. The conversion would be made in Russia and France. Iran seemed to agree, then reneged and suggested other countries should be involved in the swap.
Backing away from an ultimatum, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Monday: "We've avoided using the term deadline ourselves ... because we want to keep the door to dialogue open. But we've also made it clear that we can't continue to wait."
The UN Security Council has passed three resolutions against Iran for refusing to suspend nuclear enrichment. Discussion of new sanctions include expanding current embargoes on enterprises and individuals associated with arms programs run by the country's Revolutionary Guard Corps. The Guards are increasing their hold on the Iranian economy as well as playing a leading role in brutally crushing any opposition. Some analysts believe they have been distracted in their goal to develop a nuclear program by infighting among the country's leaders and the energy used to arrest and repress anti-government demonstrators.
The protests, since a disputed election last June, have cast a shadow over the dialogue the Obama administration had wanted to open with Iran. Tehran blames the uprisings on "foreign enemies" as bloody crackdowns continue. Clinton spoke out strongly against "mounting signs of ruthless repression."
China's Zhang said a meeting was scheduled this month among political directors of six nations involved in years of talks with Iran: Germany and the five permanent Security Council members -- the United States, France, Britain, and Russia, as well as China. The six had devised incentives in exchange for inspections and other controls on Iran's nuclear program. (Zhang was briefing reporters at the start of his Security Council presidency, which rotates monthly among 15 nations.)
How far Iran is from making a bomb is still in dispute. But that Tehran has nuclear ambitions is more than a fantasy since it kept its program a secret for 18 years, revealing it to the UN International Atomic Energy Agency only six years ago.
Still, exactly what Iran -- which insists its program is for peaceful purposes -- is planning or has achieved is not fully transparent. Many experts believe Iran will keep the dialogue going for as long as it can but also allow the world to believe it can produce a nuclear weapon if it chooses. Boys like their toys.
Ambassador Zhang Yesui