The rapidly growing relationship between Iran and China has begun to undermine international efforts to ensure that Iran cannot convert a peaceful energy program to develop a nuclear arsenal, U.S. and European officials say.
The Bush administration and its allies said last week that they plan to seek new U.N. sanctions against Iran, after the International Atomic Energy Agency said Iranian officials had given inadequate answers to questions about the country's past nuclear activities. But U.S. and European officials now worry more about a Chinese veto than about opposition from Russia, which has previously assisted and defended the Iranian nuclear energy program.
U.S. and European officials charged Friday that Beijing is deliberately stalling to protect its economic interests.
"China needs to play a more responsible role on Iran, needs to recognize that China is going to be very dependent in the decades ahead on Middle East oil, and, therefore, China, for its own development and its own purposes, is going to need a stable Middle East, and that an Iran armed with nuclear weapons is not a prescription for stability in the Middle East," national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley told reporters Friday.
China now gets at least 14 percent of its imported oil from Iran, making it China's largest supplier and the source of as much as $7 billion worth of oil this year, according to David Kirsch, a manager at PFC Energy. Tehran in turn gets major arms systems from Beijing, including ballistic and cruise missiles and technical assistance for Tehran's indigenous missile program. Dozens of Chinese companies are also engaged in several other industries.
On the eve of Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi's visit to Tehran last week for talks with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Beijing suggested that it could reject U.S.-orchestrated efforts for a new resolution. "We believe that all parties should show patience and sincerity over this issue, while any sanctions, particularly unilateral sanctions, will do no good," said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao.
The United States last month imposed its own tough new sanctions against Iran's military, banks and industries, in part out of frustration over stalled efforts to pass a third U.N. resolution. Two earlier U.N. resolutions, passed in December and March, call for further action if Iran does not comply in 60 days with demands that it shut down its uranium enrichment, which can be used both for energy and weapons. The latest U.S. diplomacy has dragged on for six months.
But the new Tehran-Beijing relationship is likely to further delay or dilute international diplomacy, because the two powers share a strategic vision, experts say. Both are determined to find ways to contain unchallenged U.S. power and a unipolar world, said Ilan Berman, vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council.
China's voracious appetite for energy has cemented the relationship, U.S. experts say. China's oil consumption is expected to grow by about 6 percent over the next two years, analysts have said.
"Iran has become the engineer of China's economic growth. It may not be like Saudi Arabia is to the U.S. economy, but it's close," Berman said.
"We're presenting China with an untenable proposition. We're asking them to unilaterally divest from Iran and not offering them energy alternatives. This is not sustainable for policy-makers whose predominant priority is to maintain and expand their country's growth," Berman said. "It's not that we shouldn't ask them to scale back their relationship, but China has put a lot of its eggs in Iran's economic basket, and a sophisticated American strategy would provide alternatives."
China has also announced an interest in helping two Iranian refinery projects, Kirsch said.
After meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda at the White House Friday, President Bush said they had agreed that "a nuclear armed Iran would threaten the security of the Middle East and beyond." The United States and its closest ally in Asia "are united in our efforts to change the regime's behavior through diplomacy," Bush told reporters. "We agreed that unless Iran commits to suspend enrichment, international pressure must and will grow."
This week's report by the IAEA confirmed that Iran has reached the technical milestone of 3,000 centrifuges, which could produce enough highly enriched uranium to make a nuclear weapon in a year, if all are working. Many experts believe Iran is still facing technical difficulties with its centrifuges, however.