WASHINGTON – Two weeks before President Barack Obama visited China, two senior White House officials traveled to Beijing on a “special mission” to persuade China to pressure Iran to give up its alleged nuclear weapons program.
If Beijing did not help the United States on this issue, the consequences could be severe, the visitors, Dennis Ross and Jeffrey Bader, both senior officials in the National Security Council, informed the Chinese.
The Chinese were told that Israel regards Iran’s nuclear program as an “existential issue and that countries that have an existential issue don’t listen to other countries,” according to a senior administration official.
The implication was clear: Israel could bomb Iran, leading to a crisis in the Persian Gulf and almost inevitably problems over the very oil China needs to fuel its economic juggernaut, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
China’s precise response is unknown, but the mission is emerging as an early test of what Obama has described as a relationship that “will shape the 21st century.” And there are signs that the U.S. lobbying has paid off.
Although it has long refrained from criticizing the nuclear policies of Iran, China this week quietly gave its support to a toughly worded, U.S.-backed statement criticizing the Islamic republic for flouting U.N. resolutions by constructing a secret uranium-enrichment plant. The statement, obtained by the Washington Post, is part of a draft resolution to be taken up as early as today by the 35 nations that make up the governing board of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog.
While largely symbolic, it is the first such declaration since 2006 to be backed by both China and Russia.
Given its backing even from Iran’s erstwhile allies, European diplomats Wednesday predicted easy passage of the resolution, which calls Tehran’s construction of an underground enrichment plant near Qom a “breach of its obligations” under U.N. and IAEA guidelines. If approved, the resolution will be referred to the U.N. Security Council, which could decide to enact harsher sanctions against the Islamic republic.
“Our patience is not going to last forever,” German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, whose government drafted the resolution, told reporters on the eve of the IAEA session.
But while diplomats and arms-control experts welcomed China’s support of the IAEA resolution, some acknowledged that it is not yet clear whether either Russia or China would go further and agree to new sanctions against Iran. Attempts to reach officials at the Chinese Embassy for comment were unsuccessful.
“They’re expressing displeasure with Iran, but whether that translates into a U.N. Security Council resolution is another matter,” said David Albright, a former U.N. nuclear inspector and president of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security.