PRAGUE, 26 January 2006 -- Ali Larijani's talks today in Beijing could decide how the next chapter of the dispute over Tehran's alleged attempt to secure nuclear arms plays out.
Larijani will try to convince the Chinese that they should prevent any attempt to bring Iran before the UN Security Council -- as the United States and its European allies want to do.
Europe And U.S. Lose Patience
The Western powers are exasperated with Iran because after many months of negotiations, a European team has been unable to secure clarity on Tehran's assertions that its program is purely peaceful.
Glen Barclay, a research fellow at the Australian National University in Canberra, says China is holding the cards in this diplomatic game.
"China's role [in the dispute] could be absolutely vital because, of course, as a [permanent] member of the Security Council, it would technically be able to veto any Security Council action against Iran," Barclay said. "But I think it's honestly very difficult to know if China would actually do this."
Barclay points to the geostrategic factors which will influence China's decision on whether and to what extent it will support Iran in this growing international row, which is beginning to take on dangerous contours. Israel has already warned it is ready to launch a devastating attack to end Iran's nuclear ambitions, and Iran has replied that it's ready in return to flatten Israel.
China Needs Iranian Gas, Oil
China's thinking, says Barclay, is governed by one word: energy. China is the world's largest importer of energy of all kinds, [and] Iran is the fourth largest exporter of oil and the second largest exporter of natural gas in the world. And this makes [Iran] most important to China. On balance, I think that China will either veto sanctions against Iran or find some way of avoiding sanctions."
Barclay says that the history of sanctions shows -- for example with the embargo on South African rare minerals and precious metals 30 years ago -- that when a country has a product that other countries want, a way will be found to circumvent the restrictions. Thus, he expects that even if sanctions are imposed on Iran, China will continue importing its oil and gas.
In Beijing today, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan expressed China's opposition to the idea of sanctions against Iran: "The Chinese government always maintains a very clear attitude toward these complicated international disputes. We oppose the use of sanctions because they will make the problems even more complicated."
U.S. And Iran Vying For Beijing's Favor
Larijani's presence in Beijing was preceded by that of U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick, who conferred with Chinese officials on 25 January.
Zoellick said afterwards that the discussions were "fluid" and that differences remain over what to do about Iran. Analysts say that this suggests China is unwilling to go along with U.S. wishes for a referral of Iran to the UN Security Council. That referral should come at the 2 February IAEA Board of Governors meeting in Vienna.
In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the U.S. has no intention of backing away from the problem. "There are no changes in our plans, in our views on the matter," he said. "We believe that, at the February 2 [IAEA] Board of Governors meeting, [there] should be a vote for referral to the Security Council. And, as we've said many times before, we believe we have the votes for that referral."
McCormack said that "time and time again" Iran has been given the chance to answer the questions of the international community about its nuclear program -- but it has not done so, satisfactorily.
While Zoellick was talking in Beijing, Larijani was busy in Moscow speaking to Russian officials. Russia too, like Beijing, favors continued diplomacy rather than a referral to the UN Security Council. And Larijani reportedly won a Russian concession that the matter -- at least for now -- should stay in the IAEA and not go further.
However, in public comments in recent weeks, Russian leaders appear to have moved closer to the Western position. Namely, that a nuclear-armed Iran is not what the world needs.