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. Bush expected to seek Chinese leader Hu's support on Iran
WASHINGTON, April 17 (AFP) Apr 17, 2006
US President George W. Bush is expected to prod his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao during talks here this week to back UN Security Council action against Iran's nuclear program.

China and Russia are the only veto-wielding members in the UN Security Council that oppose placing sanctions on Iran, which announced last week it had successfully enriched uranium to make nuclear fuel in defiance of a council demand for such sensitive work to be halted by April 28.

Bush could ask Hu to support possible punitive measures, including sanctions, against Iran when the Chinese leader makes his first White House visit on Thursday, but Beijing would maintain that diplomacy continues to be pursued to end the crisis, experts said.

"I think obviously it will be an issue, and my guess is that both sides will express continued concern, desire for diplomatic progress and call on Iran to be constructive," said Jon Wolfsthal, a nuclear expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

But getting an endorsement for action against Tehran will be difficult, he said, adding that China seems wanting to avoid tensions in the Middle East more than safeguarding its vital energy links with Iran.

"While there is a growing energy relationship with Iran, it is still not a critical relationship for China. But you know they have many reasons to want to avoid tension and conflict in the Middle East," Wolfsthal said.

But Gordon Chang, an American-Chinese author of books on China's politics and North Korea's nuclear ambitions, insists Beijing's attitude was driven by its extensive oil exploration and gas interests in Iran.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, the world's nuclear watchdog, had identified China as one of the sources for enrichment equipment used in Tehran's suspected nuclear weapons program, Chang said in an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal last week.

In addition, Chinese weapons scientists were working in Iran as late as the end of 2003. Various sources had reported that as late as last year, China sold either centrifuges or centrifuge parts to Iran, he said.

"These reports suggest that China, despite passionate and repeated denials, is still playing 'the proliferation card' to secure access to Iranian energy," he said.

"China's activities also raise broader questions about Beijing's adherence to international norms to prevent the dispersal of nuclear technologies," he said.

Even though Bush has a plethora of issues to raise with Hu, including American economic and trade concerns, North Korea's nuclear weapons program and China's human rights record, experts believe Iran will receive special attention.

"The key sticking point is still Iran," noted John Tkacik, a former State Department official who has served in China, saying that Beijing's policies on Iran appear grounded in a "strategic calculation".

Citing as an example, he said that in April 2002, shortly after Bush labeled Iran as part of an "Axis of Evil," then Chinese President Jiang Zemin visited Tehran and reportedly conveyed a message that China and Iran hoped to 'prevent domination of a superpower on the entire world.'

Hu's predecessor Jiang also reportedly declared that China's policy was to oppose any American deployment in Central Asia and the Middle East, Tkacik said.

"There is every prospect that China will threaten to veto any UN sanctions on Iran, and without sanctions, Iran has no incentive to negotiate the dismantlement of its nuclear weapons program," he said.

Wolfsthal said that in some ways it was easier for China if Russia continued to be "the main obstacle" for imposing any punishment to Iran.

"If the situation with Russia improves, then I think there are some difficult questions for China, in terms of how it plans to respond to American interest or American desire to take strong action," he said.

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