It's official: China has joined the club of six world powers pursuing a fourth round of U.N. sanctions against Iran, closing the last remaining gap among the five countries with veto power on the U.N. Security Council. As per Reuters (via an unidentified source "with knowledge off the talks"):
"It has been agreed with China to start drawing up sanctions on Iran," the source said. "Drawing up of a Security Council resolution is to begin in the next few days."
Diplomats say China has been slowly and reluctantly falling in line with the other powers involved in the negotiations on Iran by backing the idea of new U.N. sanctions against Tehran but Beijing wants any new steps to be weak.
They say the four Western powers would like a resolution to be adopted next month, before a month-long U.N. conference on the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in May, but acknowledge that negotiations will probably drag on at least until June.
A few quick thoughts on what this could mean. First and foremost, it will likely make for a somewhat tougher sell for Congress to pursue its own sanctions track via the Iran Sanctions Act (as Sarah Palin, for one, would like to see them do). Proponents of this approach contend that the Obama administration's multilateral method is neither moving along quickly enough nor likely to produce sufficiently crippling results in Iran. They may yet have a point, since we don't know yet exactly what the final U.N. sanctions package will look like—and, despite Obama's calls for a package in the coming weeks, may not actually know for another couple of months.
But let's assume for a moment that it ultimately bears a resemblance to the plan that leaked out last week. Provisions the U.S. pushed for that made the cut: a comprehensive arms embargo, a freeze on the Revolutionary Guard's assets, expanded authority to search and seize suspicious cargo headed to Iran, and a ban on offering credit to Iran. Those that didn't: closure of international waters and airspace to Iranian shippers, prohibition of international insurance for Iranian transport contracts, and a ban on foreign investment in Iranian bonds. Granted, the package is nowhere near as harsh or comprehensive as the plan in Congress (and there are plenty of good arguments for why it shouldn't be), but it's still quite the step up. And now that Russia and China have finally stuck their necks out to support it, bringing together a full multilateral coalition demonstrating unanimous worldwide disapproval to Iran--from some of its biggest trading partners, no less—it's going to be harder to make the case for circumventing that entire yearlong diplomatic process and saying, simply, "thanks, but no thanks."
But again, that still depends on what the final product looks like. If it allows Chinese oil and gas companies to move in where other countries' firms have divested, as has occurred in the past, then the domestic political dynamic really doesn't change much at all. For now, though, consider this indicator: the development appears to have made the Iranians at least a little bit nervous. They just announced they're sending a top nuclear negotiator to Beijing on Thursday to try to smooth things over.