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China "softens" its stance towards sanctions against Iran

April 1, 2010

The US ambassador to the United Nations has said that China, which relies on Iran for oil, is ready to enter "serious negotiations" about imposing new sanctions on Tehran over its nuclear program.

Presidents Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hu Jintao are close
Presidents Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hu Jintao are closeImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

For Udo Steinbach, a leading German expert on the Middle East, it is very likely that China has begun reviewing its opposition to sanctions against Iran.

"For me, the most important signal is that bilateral trade between Iran and China, particularly in the oil sector, has dropped significantly", Steinbach told Deutsche Welle. "I get the impression that the Chinese have definitely become more open to sanctions."

Udo Steinbach is a leading German expert on the Middle East
Udo Steinbach is a leading German expert on the Middle EastImage: dpa

China has come under increasing pressure to go along with other leading powers, added Kerry Brown from the UK think tank, Chatham House. "The fact that Russia wasn't going to oppose the sanctions means that China was even more isolated," he said.

Tehran's top nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, met Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi in Beijing on Thursday.

UN resolution against Iran is on the cards

Observers agree that the Chinese are generally trying to reassure Iran of their support but cannot promise to prevent sanctions from being imposed "single-handedly". Chinese analysts have said as much in the state media.

"I don’t have the feeling, at this stage, that the Iranians will be able to talk the Chinese into not taking part in any international sanctions," said Steinbach.

Steinbach added that although Beijing was likely to insist on measured sanctions that did not target the Iranian population, a UN resolution against Iran supported by China was definitely on the cards.

China did have economic interests in Iran, he conceded, "but they cannot really pursue those interests unless normality returns to the whole Iran issue. In Beijing, billions of dollars are waiting to be invested in the Iranian oil business. But this won’t happen for some time so the economic incentive for not backing sanctions has also decreased for the Chinese."

China depends heavily on Iran as a main oil supplier
China depends heavily on Iran as a main oil supplierImage: AP / DW-Fotomontage

Hu Jintao will attend the Washington nuclear summit

China announced on Thursday that President Hu Jintao would attend the nuclear summit that Barack Obama is hosting in Washington later this month.

"It was expected that Hu Jintao would go to this conference in America. Because the US and Chinese have not been getting on particularly well lately, so I think this is a good opportunity for them to thaw the atmosphere a bit. And had he not gone it would have been interpreted as a big diplomatic snub,” remarked Kerry Brown.

After months of growing pressure on China over a whole range of issues, Beijing is clearly trying to send out conciliatory signals to the international community.

Author: Thomas Baerthlein
Editor: Anne Thomas