AssBy ociated Press, Published: November 8
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — For Iranian envoys at an Asian affairs summit this week in Russia, it was the ultimate dream team: The Russian prime minister and China’s premier standing shoulder to shoulder and promising to keep Western influence at bay.
Iran’s leaders are now counting on the country’s two most powerful friends to remain by their side after the release of a U.N. report suggesting that Tehran could be on the brink of having the capability to develop an atomic weapon.
Russia and China — both permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — are once again in the position of veto-carrying gatekeepers for any Western bids to tighten sanctions on Iran. They also hold important voices of dissent against warnings of military options by Israel and others, even as the White House insists that diplomacy is still the preferred path.
Tehran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, not weapons production.
The choices for Moscow and Beijing could become even more complicated after the release of the report by the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency. Blocking possible attempts for tougher sanctions could help safeguard diplomatic and commercial interests — particularly China’s booming trade with Iran — but also may indirectly bolster the case for military action as a last resort, some experts said.
“It’s a difficult spot for them,” said Theodore Karasik, a security expert at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis. “In the past, they complained about sanctions but eventually acquiesced or remained silent. It may play out like this again.”
It could, however, be a long process of negotiations and sound bite volleys before the next moves are clear.
Israel has stepped up warnings of a possible military strike in recent days. In the latest, Israel’s defense minister, Ehud Barak, said Tuesday that the option of a military strike is not “off the table” and rejected suggestions that Israel would be devastated by Iranian retaliation.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said a military strike on Iran could be a “catastrophe” for the Middle East.
“We should exhale, calm down and continue a constructive discussion of all issues on the Middle East agenda, including the Iranian nuclear program,” Medvedev said Tuesday in Berlin a day after an Asian security summit in St. Petersburg that included Iran and pledges of closer cooperation between Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
China, too, remains strongly opposed to any use of force against Iran. But Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei urged Tehran to show “flexibility and sincerity” as a way to encourage renewed international dialogue.
Beijing’s appeals also reflect that China has a lot to lose.
China became Iran’s biggest trading partner in 2009 with two-way commerce now hitting $36.5 billion and rising fast, according to the Iran-China Chamber of Commerce. China floods sanctions-battered Iran with consumer goods, machinery and technological help for high-priority objectives such as missile upgrades and aerospace expertise for satellites.