A path to unity on Iran sanctions

Just a couple of months ago, Sino-American relations seemed to have hit bottom over a series of issues such as U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, President Obama’s meeting with the Tibetan Dalai Lama and U.S. efforts to stem Iran’s nuclear ambitions with U.N. sanctions. But a troubled winter has turned into a spring thaw, with the two powers now engaged in a choreographed reconciliation.

This became apparent last week when Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg reiterated the United States’ commitment to the “one-China” policy dating to President Nixon, saying that despite the repeated arms sales and the embrace of the Dalai Lama by Republicans and Democrats alike, the U.S. does not support Taiwanese or Tibetan independence. That conciliatory gesture was followed by an hour-long telephone call between Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao, and then by China’s announcement that it would attend a nuclear security summit in Washington next week and join United Nations negotiations on Iran sanctions. The U.S. Treasury Department also postponed a decision on whether to officially name China a “currency manipulator” for undervaluing its yuan.

This pas de deux should be familiar. There have been many ups and downs in the U.S.-China relationship over the last few decades, but both sides recognize its value and work to keep it in balance. This is particularly true for the United States as China’s political and economic strength continues to grow. Moreover, Obama is focused on winning Beijing’s support for tougher sanctions on Iran, which he’s more likely to get if the relationship is going well.

China’s agreement to talk about sanctions is a step in the right direction, though talking and voting are two different things. In China’s view, Iran has not gone as far as North Korea in its pursuit of weapons and, therefore, should not be subjected to stricter sanctions. Thus, some suggest that Beijing would support blacklisting individuals and companies involved in the Iranian nuclear weapons program -- including the Revolutionary Guard Corps -- and freezing their assets, but not broader sanctions targeting the financial and energy sectors, for example. The United States would prefer tougher sanctions, but wants consensus among U.N. Security Council members to send the message that Tehran is isolated.

It is unclear whether such sanctions would be any more effective than the previous rounds. But Obama’s offer of dialogue and Russia’s offer to take Iranian uranium and turn it into fuel for peaceful purposes have been rejected by the Islamic government. Military strikes are not a viable option, in our view. So for now, sanctions seem to be the only arrow in the U.N.'s collective quiver, and we hope the U.S., China and the other members will work together to press Tehran to forgo enrichment activities and limit its nuclear efforts to civilian uses.