However, this calculation of Iran’s possible actions could just as well be one of many reasons why China might eventually soften its objections to sanctions. If Iran is emboldened by the support it believes it has from China and others to resist Western pressure over its nuclear programme, then that, too, could lead to conflict. Israel, for instance, might take matters into its own hands, with a pre-emptive strike against Iranian nuclear facilities.
It is fair to assume that Chinese leaders are sincere when they say they do not want a nuclear-armed Iran. Wen Jiabao, China’s prime minister, was unusually explicit about this on January 20th. China, he said, “adamantly opposes Iran developing and possessing nuclear weapons.” China may resent the hypocrisy of Western leaders, who tolerate nuclear programmes in India and Israel, but it seems to accept that Iran’s acquisition of the bomb would be bad for regional stability.
Mr Wen was speaking in Qatar during a tour that took in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia—but not Iran. This carried a reminder to Iran that, big though its oil exports to China are, they come to only about half of Saudi Arabia’s. Not only would China want to be sure it had other sources of supply if Iranian oil dries up. It would also be wary of antagonising Saudi Arabia, a strong supporter of the American and European embargoes. And in fact Chinese purchases of Iranian oil have fallen sharply in January, supposedly because of a commercial dispute.