TEHRAN, Iran, AP – Iran’s hard-line president is doing more than just attending an Asian security summit in China: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seeks to gain Russian and Chinese support at a critical moment for his country’s nuclear program.
He also aims to prove that his country is not isolated, despite U.S. claims to the contrary.
Past trips to Asia have been a chance for Ahmadinejad to tap into anti-U.S. sentiment and tout himself as a leader who is standing up to Washington. Last month, he was cheered by Indonesian students and by a crowd shouting “Fight America! Fight Israel!” outside a Jakarta mosque where he performed prayers.
His visit to China, which began Wednesday, will likely be more dedicated to intense diplomacy. Ahmadinejad is expected to hold separate meetings with his Chinese and Russian counterparts, Hu Jintao and Vladimir Putin, on the sidelines of the regional summit in Shanghai.
Ahmadinejad hasn’t commented on the nuclear issue since his arrival in China. The summit began Thursday with a closed-door meeting between the presidents of China, Russia and four Central Asian nations. Ahmadinejad took part in an enlarged session later in which he invited the participating countries’ energy ministers to visit Iran to discuss energy cooperation.
The summit will be a chance to sound out his two allies on a package of incentives offered by the Big Five Powers at the U.N., plus Germany, seeking to persuade Iran to freeze its uranium enrichment program. If Iran agrees, Tehran would then be able to enter negotiations with the United States and Europe over a long-term resolution to the standoff over its nuclear program.
Russia and China have backed the incentives package. But the two countries — longtime allies and trading partners of Iran who hold veto powers at the U.N. — have opposed any move to impose sanctions, which Washington seeks if Tehran turns down the offer.
A key question for Iran is likely to be how much change it can seek in the package and still keep Moscow and Beijing’s implicit protection.
Iran has said it finds parts of the package acceptable but that other parts should be removed. And it has said the key issue of uranium enrichment remains unclear and needs further explanation. Tehran has outright rejected demands it scrap enrichment and has been highly reluctant to suspend it.
Tehran has not yet responded to the offer, given to it a week ago.
“Iran is taking its own time (in responding) to get Russia and China to modify the Western pressures on Tehran,” said political analyst Davoud Hermidas Bavand.
Ahmadinejad will likely urge Moscow and Beijing to “follow their independent policy and don’t go the U.S. way,” said analyst Mostafa Kavakebian.
The Iranian president will try to push his own ideas, seeking a compromise that will guarantee his country’s right to enrich uranium and at the same time offer guarantees that its nuclear program won’t be diverted toward weapons, he said.
In Shanghai, Ahmadinejad joins the leaders of Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, who comprise the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The trip is also a chance to show that Iran has friends around the world despite U.S. attempts to isolate it. Iran has made clear it is adjusting its relations with nations based on the nuclear standoff.
“We are redefining our relations with the world,” Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki told a television program last week. “We are managing our relations with other countries based on our national interests and the way we are treated (over the nuclear dispute).”
Iran has repeatedly said it will offer giant economic projects to countries that support its nuclear program and punish those who vote against it.
China’s state energy company has signed long-term deals for natural gas. Those deals display the growing disregard for Washington’s priorities. In 1996 the U.S. said it would consider sanctions on any company that invests more than $20 million annually in the Iranian oil and gas sectors. The threat was never enforced.
Ahmadinejad’s participation in the Shanghai summit, as an observer, is a particular irritant to the United States, which views the body as an attempted counterweight against Western influence in Central Asia and the presence of American bases there.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld last week chided China and Russia for backing Tehran’s participation in the summit, saying he found it strange to bring the “leading terrorist nation in the world into an organization that says it’s against terror.”
But host China dismissed the criticism. “We cannot abide by other countries calling our observer nations sponsors of terror,” Shanghai Cooperation Organization chief Zhang Deguang said.