WASHINGTON — Despite intense public and private pressure by the Obama administration, China has not yet shown any sign that it will support tougher sanctions against Iran, leaving a stubborn barrier before President Barack Obama’s efforts to constrain Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Diplomats from two major European allies said this week that China had refused even to “engage substantively” on the issue of sanctions, preferring to continue diplomatic efforts with Tehran. And one senior diplomat said he believed that the most likely outcome might be a decision by China to abstain from voting on a resolution in the U.N. Security Council.
“An abstention is better than a veto,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the delicacy of the matter.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton expressed optimism this week that China was edging toward the American view that the time had come for tougher measures against Iran. But other administration officials acknowledged that her optimism was based less on tangible evidence than on a belief that China would not want to end up diplomatically isolated.
China, the officials note, has backed all three previous U.N. sanctions resolutions on Iran, overcoming its initial reluctance. Last November, it joined 25 other members of the International Atomic Energy Agency in rebuking Iran for concealing a uranium enrichment plant at Qum.
“I think we’ve made a lot of progress,” Clinton said Wednesday in testimony before the Senate, adding that she believed that the Security Council would adopt a resolution in the “next 30 to 60 days.”
In a sign that the administration may be managing expectations in light of China’s stance, she noted that the United Nations was not the only arena for squeezing Iran. The United States and the European Union are expected to impose their own sanctions, she said, and other countries could team up against Iran.
“We will look at additional bilateral and preferably multilateral sanctions with willing nations, on top of whatever we get out of the Security Council,” Clinton said Thursday before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “So, in sum, we believe in a broad approach.”
For now, though, the spotlight is on the United Nations, where she said diplomats were “hammering out” the language of a resolution. The United States, Britain, France and Germany are largely united around sanctions aimed at equipment and financing for Iran’s nuclear and missile programs, with an emphasis on measures against the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, which runs those programs.
Russia is also expected to support a resolution, though diplomats predicted that it would try to water down the sanctions.
That leaves China, which declared again this week that it preferred diplomacy. Experts say Beijing is being driven partly by its commercial ties: It has vast investments in Iran’s oil and gas sector, and Iran is its second largest supplier of oil, after Saudi Arabia.