By Yochi J. Dreazen
Source: The Wall Street Journal
February 26, 2010
WASHINGTON—Israel sent a high-level delegation to Beijing to seek Chinese backing for stronger sanctions against Iran, an unusual move that highlights China’s centrality to the Obama administration’s hopes of using economic pressure to persuade Tehran to abandon its nuclear ambitions.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Minister of Strategic Affairs Moshe Yaalon and central bank chief Stanley Fischer, on a two-day visit that ended Friday, used meetings with Chinese officials to press Israel’s case that Iran’s nuclear program represents a regional and global threat, rather than simply a danger to Israel’s own security. Mr. Barak indicated that Israel had only modest hopes for the meetings with China, a close Iranian ally and a major purchaser of Iranian oil and natural gas.
“Our meeting there is just about information,” Mr. Barak told an audience at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank. “We want to share with them our feelings about what’s going on in the world arena and what’s going on with the Iranian project.”
The defense chief acknowledged that Israel’s diplomatic and economic ties with China weren’t particularly strong, a function of Israel’s small size. “Together with the Chinese we are more than 1 billion people,” he joked.
The Israeli visit to Beijing comes as the White House sharpens its rhetoric about Iran and escalates its diplomatic efforts to win tougher sanctions against Tehran. The U.S., backed by Israel and many of its other key allies, says Iran is working to develop nuclear weapons, a charge that Tehran has long denied.
Last week, the International Atomic Energy Agency said it had concerns about “the possible existence in Iran of past or current undisclosed activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile.” In its response to the United Nations nuclear watchdog’s report, Iran reiterated that it was seeking civilian nuclear power only.
Appearing with Mr. Barak at the State Department Friday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the U.S. remained committed to using diplomacy, rather than military force, to persuade Iran to abandon its nuclear efforts.
“But as the recent IAEA report makes clear, Iran is not living up to its responsibilities, and we are working with our partners in the international community to increase pressure on Iran to change course,” she said.
Mrs. Clinton told lawmakers earlier this week that the Obama administration hoped to see a U.N. resolution with harsher sanctions against Iran in the next one to two months.
Among the five veto-wielding members of the U.N. Security Council, Russia and China have long been the most skeptical about imposing new sanctions on Tehran. But Russia has signaled growing impatience with Iran, with President Dmitry Medvedev arguing in an interview this week that “responsible behavior by Iran is the key to solving this problem.”
That leaves China as potentially the final obstacle to the Obama administration’s desire for a tougher sanctions package against Iran. Administration officials say they’re cautiously optimistic about eventually winning Chinese support. But privately, U.S. officials acknowledge fears that Beijing will try to water down the measures before lending any support to imposing them.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has reluctantly endorsed the Obama administration’s ongoing efforts to engage Tehran diplomatically and to focus on economic sanctions rather than possible airstrike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. But he and other top Israeli officials have voiced concern that it could take months to craft a sanctions package, giving Iran more time to proceed with its nuclear research.
Mr. Barak told reporters at the State Department that Israel wanted to ensure that any new sanctions against Iran were “effective, limited in time, and consequential.”
Even so, he said the U.S. and its allies had to make sure that they didn’t lose “eye contact with the possibility that in spite of all effort, it will not lead to Iran accepting the international norms.”
—Jay Solomon contributed to this article.