BEIJING -- When foreign ministers from the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council meet today to discuss how to pressure Iran to end nuclear enrichment, Russia and China are expected to oppose the possibility of sanctions, a stance that puts them at odds with other world powers but reflects energy and strategic interests that Moscow and Beijing will not casually abandon.
Both countries see Iran as a vital foothold in their efforts to counter Western power and expand their influence, analysts and diplomats say. And they have costly items at stake, including Iranian oil and natural gas supplies, and sales of arms, power plants and other technology.
These calculations help explain why these two nations have opposed the U.S.-European effort to curtail Iran's nuclear program. But analysts say those calculations might also point the way to compromise: If Russian and Chinese opposition hinges on what they stand to lose -- rather than ironclad alliances -- then the right resolution could draw them in line.
"China really evaluates its relations with Tehran in terms of the oil privileges available," said Zhu Feng, a global-security expert at Beijing University, "but Beijing will not risk losing friendly relations with international society over that."
Yesterday, Iran's parliament threatened to pass legislation forcing its government to withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty if the U.N. took unfavorable action. But John R. Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., said yesterday that the threat wouldn't block a U.N. resolution. Bolton said he expected a Security Council vote this week.
In a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan read on state-run radio, Iran's parliament said the dispute over Iran's nuclear program must be resolved "peacefully, [or] there will be no option for the parliament but to ask the government to withdraw its signature" allowing for inspections of its nuclear facilities.
A draft resolution introduced Wednesday by Britain, France and the U.S. demands that Tehran halt nuclear enrichment activities, which they believe could lead to nuclear weapons. Sponsors want the resolution adopted under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, which can be enforced by sanctions or, if necessary, military action.
Russia and China are undecided. The key question is whether they will agree to impose limited sanctions on Iran, abstain from any resolution or reject the use of penalties entirely.
For China, an unchecked Iran poses risks and rewards. China's economy devours raw materials, so Beijing needs friends rich in natural resources. But China is wary of any country that threatens to disrupt the international status quo that has helped China prosper, and Chinese leaders denounce any notion of a nuclear-armed Iran.
For now, though, Iran's energy offerings are more persuasive. Iran-China trade has blossomed since 1993, when China's economy first outpaced domestic oil reserves. China today imports 40 percent of its oil, including 11 percent of that share from Iran. In the biggest deal, China's state-owned oil giant Sinopec struck a $70 billion pact in November 2004 to develop the Yadavaran oil field.
Overall, two-way trade between Iran and China increased from $1.2 billion in 1998 to about $10 billion in 2005. That figure includes Chinese sales to Iran of tactical guided missiles and other military equipment totaling $200 million between 2001 and 2004, according to a Congressional Research Service report.
China sees Iran as a buffer against U.S. expansion in the Middle East and a beachhead for defending vital sea passages, analysts say. In the event of a Chinese conflict with the United States, for instance, Iran could aid China to combat a U.S. naval blockade on oil shipments.
Chinese analysts say the importance of relations with the West is likely to compel Beijing to permit limited sanctions, as long as they do not target oil sales. Bates Gill, a China scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, is less optimistic, saying the emerging best-case scenario appears to be a Chinese abstention to a watered-down resolution.
"The Chinese are not going to agree to seizing assets, forbidding travel and cutting off trade," Gill said.
There are similar compromises under consideration in Moscow, where Russian leaders' attitudes toward Tehran have changed since 2002, when Russians flatly dismissed American concerns over Iran's nuclear ambitions as groundless.
Today, Russia shares the West's suspicions about Iran's nuclear intentions. Last week, the Russian parliament's foreign affairs committee chairman, Konstantin Kosachyov, summed up Moscow's feelings toward Tehran in blunt terms: "We don't trust Iran either."
That mistrust, Kosachyov said, is fed by Iran's failure to provide full disclosure of its nuclear program and its hostility to Israel.
Moreover, vetoing a Security Council vote for sanctions carries the clear risk of straining an already chilly relationship with Washington and risking future energy ties with the West
Evan Osnos and Alex Rodriguez write for the Chicago Tribune. The Associated Press contributed to this article.