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ANALYSIS-New Iran sanctions: A question of when, not if
* China seen slowing down negotiations on Iran sanctions
* ICG: China values ties with U.S. more than Iran
By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS, March 27 (Reuters) - China is slowly and reluctantly falling in line with Russia and four Western powers by backing the idea of new U.N. sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program, but Beijing wants any new steps to be weak.
The breakthrough, Western diplomats and analysts say, came this week after China ended months of delays by agreeing to enter into serious discussions with five other world powers on how to draft a new Iran sanctions resolution to be presented to the 15-nation U.N. Security Council. [ID:nN24175876]
But the battle for the full support of China and Russia, which have close business ties with Iran, has only begun.
"The fact that China agreed to engage is a success," said Mark Fitzpatrick of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. "I don't think anyone's making any bets on how long this process will take. But it looks like it's no longer a question of whether but when."
Fitzpatrick said U.S. President Barack Obama's success in ending months of deadlock to get a breakthrough deal with Russia on a replacement for the Cold War-era START nuclear arms reduction treaty [ID:nN26229872] would give Russian-U.S. ties a boost and help keep Moscow on board for new Iran sanctions.
Diplomats from the six countries involved in the sanctions negotiations -- the United States, Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia -- say the four Western powers would like a resolution adopted next month, ahead of a month-long U.N. conference on the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in May.
But they acknowledge that negotiations will probably drag on until at least June, mostly due to a Chinese and Russian desire to dilute any proposed punitive measures. Although Moscow supports the idea of sanctions, it wants them to be targeted measures focusing on Iran's nuclear program.
"China may accept a U.N. resolution with sanctions in the end, but with great reluctance, as it has before," said Shi Yinhong, a professor at Renmin University in Beijing.
"China faces growing pressure to act," Shi said. "(But) it knows that the United States and other powers are desperate to have China included as part of a unified stance. That still gives China room to maneuver, and it will fully use it."
China and Russia, like the United States, Britain and France, have veto power on the Security Council.
CHINA VALUES U.S. TIES
The Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) said in a recent report that China's delay tactics bring certain benefits for Beijing, which analysts and diplomats say has become increasingly assertive on the Security Council, a body where it once preferred to remain invisible.
"Pursuit of the diplomatic track delays punitive action and maximizes Beijing's bargaining power with regard to both Iran and the West," the ICG report said. "Nevertheless, if Russia finally supports sanctions, China will likely come on board to avoid diplomatic isolation."
The report added: "Beijing will not side with Iran at the expense of its relations with the U.S. Despite recent troubles in the Sino-U.S. relationship, China still values those ties more than its ties to Iran."
Iran rejects Western allegations that the goal of its nuclear program is to develop the capability to produce atomic weapons. It insists its ambitions are limited to the generation of electricity and has ignored five Security Council resolutions demanding that it cease enriching uranium.
Russia and China have been putting pressure on Iran behind the scenes. Western diplomats told Reuters that the two powers quietly admonished Iran's government in Tehran earlier this month, saying they wanted it to accept a U.N.-backed nuclear fuel offer and to change its nuclear policy.
They added that neither received a satisfactory reply so far, which might help explain China's decision to join this week's six-power conference call on Iran. [ID:nN23117021]
Russia and China backed three previous resolutions in 2006, 2007 and 2008 imposing limited sanctions against Iran -- travel bans and asset freezes targeting some Iranian individuals and firms linked to Tehran's nuclear and missile programs.
But they did so after working hard to water down the proposed measures to the point where some analysts and diplomats said the U.N. sanctions were largely symbolic.
Although the measures appeared mild on paper, the United States, European Union and their allies have implemented many of the measures aggressively, effectively blacklisting several major Iranian banks and pressuring major Western firms to pull out of the Islamic Republic.
This, Western diplomats say, has hurt Iran more than expected. And if the council imposes further sanctions on Iran, the EU would most likely pass its own implementing measures that go beyond any U.N. sanctions, European diplomats say.
The latest U.S.-drafted sanctions proposal, which the United States circulated to Russia and China nearly a month ago after agreeing on it with Germany, France and Britain, would expand the U.N. blacklist to include some Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps members and firms its controls.
A French call for energy sector sanctions was left out of the U.S. draft, as was a proposed ban on transactions linked to Iran's central bank, which Germany opposed, envoys said.
But it does call for expanding existing limits on arms trade with Iran into a full weapons embargo, with an inspection regime similar to one in place for North Korea, and would blacklist several Iranian shipping firms. [ID:nN05120980]
Russia has said it dislikes the idea of an arms embargo and other measures in the U.S. draft. China has not reacted yet. (Additional reporting by Chris Buckley in Beijing, editing by Philip Barbara)
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