Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad sought to distance his host country China from the new UN sanctions as he visited Shanghai today.
Speaking during a visit to the World Expo in China's commercial capital of Shanghai, Ahmadinejad said nuclear powers "have no right" to decide which other countries can develop nuclear energy.
"The current possessors of nuclear weapons are unwilling to let other countries even have peaceful nuclear energy. And they accuse others of possibly starting to make nuclear weapons while developing nuclear energy," he said. "Some of them possess destructive nuclear weapons and have already used nuclear weapons against other nations."
He also called sanctions a "tool of dictatorship" and said they "will have no effect" upon Iran.
The comments come two days after the UN Security Council – including permanent member China – approved a fourth round of sanctions on Iran aimed at compelling Tehran to cooperate with international nuclear inspectors.
The new sanctions target Iran's Revolutionary Guard, ballistic missiles, and nuclear-related investments. They also authorize states to seize suspected cargo ships and ban exports of helicopters and battle tanks to Tehran.
Underline Trade Relations
Ahmadinejad did not criticize Beijing directly for approving the sanctions. China could have used its veto to block them.
Instead, he sought to underline the strong trade relations between Iran and China, as if to suggest the sanctions were not significant enough to disrupt business as usual.
Trade between the two countries reached at least $36.5 billion last year as Iran supplies 11 percent of China's energy needs. At the same time, Chinese companies have major investments in Iranian energy extraction projects and the construction of roads, bridges, and power plants.
Ahmadinejad's efforts to minimize the sanctions' importance for Iranian-Chinese relations come as all the players in the Iran nuclear crisis now wrestle with how broadly to interpret the sanctions in the months ahead.
China said on June 10 that despite its approval of the new round, it still wants diplomacy to take priority in the showdown.
"China has stressed repeatedly that the resolution passed by the Security Council doesn't mean the door to solving the Iranian nuclear issue through diplomatic means is closed," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told reporters in Beijing. "We encourage the international community to keep working for a detailed, comprehensive, and appropriate solution to the Iranian nuclear issue."
The sanctions China voted for on June 9 were less stringent than those originally proposed by Western powers. They do not impose severe economic punishments or an embargo on oil shipments, which are Iran's chief source of income.
The weaker final version of the sanctions was the result of lobbying by both China and Russia, which also shares strong trading ties with Tehran.
Moscow on June 10 similarly suggested it may not interpret the sanctions any more strictly than necessary.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said the sanctions do not oblige Moscow to abandon a deal to deliver surface-to-air missiles to Tehran. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the new sanctions only limit "cooperation with Iran on offensive weapons" and that the S-300 air defense missiles "do not fall under these limits."
The Russian and Chinese statements would appear to leave Washington in the position of trying to shore up the sanctions only days after they were passed as the strictest response to Iran to date.
Washington is trying to do that by praising the cooperation of Beijing and Moscow and the strength of the accord.
U.S. State Department spokesman Phillip Crowley said on June 10 that the Obama administration "recognized and appreciated the restraint that Russia showed" in waiting until the June 9 Security Council vote before announcing that the delivery of the S-300 missiles would proceed. He also acknowledged that the S-300 system is not on the list of banned items in the sanctions package.
But the question now for Washington – as well as Tehran – is clearly how to influence the amount of conviction states bring to applying the sanctions even as Iran continues to defy UN demands to halt uranium enrichment.
Washington and its European allies want to keep Moscow and Beijing as active partners in inflicting enough pain on the Iranian government to make it back down.
But Tehran, as Ahmadinejad made clear today, sees its best hope in encouraging states to observe the new sanctions more in letter than in spirit. And that suggests the showdown over Iran's nuclear program could remain as challenging even after this week's progress at the Security Council.