What’s The Real Story on Iran Sanctions?

China’s President Hu Jintao met last week with U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington D.C. The occasion was the Nuclear Summit called by President Obama, and a key sidebar discussion was the subject of tougher sanctions on Iran. What was agreed in these discussions?

According to U.S. officials, the meeting of the two presidents resulted in a diplomatic breakthrough with both sides agreeing to jointly push for new nuclear sanctions on Iran. “Injecting momentum into the drive to punish Tehran over its nuclear program, Hu and Obama instructed their delegations at the United Nations to work together on a draft resolution, the officials said, as Obama seeks to enact toughened sanctions within weeks.”

Sounds promising. However, after leaving Washington, President Hu traveled to Brasilia where in meetings of the BRIC and IBSA countries, the leaders and officials from these two major international groups took a contrary view, agreeing that new sanctions would not help resolve the nuclear issue. (BRIC stands for Brazil, Russia, India and China, while IBSA stands for India, Brazil and South Africa.) The April 15 Brasilia meetings saw Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh sit down first with Brazilian President Lula da Silva and South African President Jacob Zuma for the India-Brazil-South Africa summit, and then with Lula, and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev and Hu Jintao for the second Brazil-Russia-India-China summit.

As reported in the Indian press, India’s National Security Adviser Shiv Shankar Menon took part in a meeting of BRIC senior security officials alongside Nikolai Patrushev of Russia and Dai Binguuo of China. Giving an account of the intra-BRIC exchanges on Iran, a senior Indian official said, “All of us agreed that we don’t think sanctions will help solve the current problems with Iran.”

What gives? Is President Hu telling two different stories to two different audiences? I don’t think that’s the case. China has said consistently that it does not believe that increased sanctions will work and that it favors further discussion and dialogue with Iran instead. Moreover, Iran is an important supplier of oil to China and many Chinese companies have operations in the country.

Anxious to walk away from the Nuclear Summit with China’s agreement for tougher sanctions against Iran, my guess is that Administration officials mistook President Hu’s desire to show a harmonious relationship with the United States as agreement with the U.S. position on Iran. In other words, they heard what they wanted to hear and didn’t listen hard enough.

This happens all the time in China. Americans tend to have very set views and are in a hurry to reach agreement, while the Chinese are more subtle and tend to play their cards close to their vests. Understanding what is truly being said in a meeting is akin to peeling an onion. That is why being patient and learning to listen are two important keys to doing business in China. Administration officials are likely to learn this lesson in the coming weeks.

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