Hiding the disappointments of his talks in Beijing with Chinese President Hu Jintao Tuesday, Nov. 17, U.S. President Barack Obama announced the next day that "the US and its (other?) partners were working on a package of steps" to show Tehran the "consequences" of its decision to reject the world powers' proposal for the overseas processing of Iran's enriched uranium.
The snub was confirmed the same day by Iran's foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki.
Even now, the US president had not given up on dialogue. He said he still hoped Iran would walk through the door of cooperation.
This dual track may have been a last appeal to Beijing rather than Tehran.
In the Chinese capital, Obama found himself talking to the wall on possible sanctions against Tehran. President Hu told their joint news conference politely but firmly that it was "very important" to "appropriately resolve the Iranian nuclear issue through dialogue and negotiations," adding: "During the talks, I underlined to President Obama that given our differences in national conditions, it is only normal that our two sides may disagree on some issues."
The rebuff was clear, but should not have surprised Obama.
Before the president flew out of Beijing, Secretary of state Hillary Clinton tried her hand at persuading Chinese officials to at least "send a signal" of disapproval to Tehran – if not UN penalties.
She too encountered stony faces.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly sources in Washington report that, before embarking on his Asian tour last week, President Obama was forewarned by Dennis Ross in a special briefing that China was dead against punishing Iran for its intransigence. Ross had just returned from a covert mission to Beijing to prepare the president's visit in the hope that he would drive a chink in the hard wall of China's opposition to sanctions.
Obama was forewarned about the Chinese No
For extra gravitas, Ross was granted the title of the President's Special Envoy for Iran, a title he had not carried since he visited Cairo and Riyadh on May 3 and failed to persuade King Abdullah and President Hosni Mubarak to accept Obama's policy of engagement with Iran.
This time, he carried a personal message from Obama to Hu. The Chinese president said he would give his reply to the US president when they met. But Ross's luck had turned against him: he contracted flu, giving other high Chinese officials an excuse for refusing to receive him.
Although warned in advance that the Chinese leadership would be unreceptive on Iran and other thorny issues such as the economy and the Chinese currency, his aides nevertheless counted on the president's personal charm and eloquence in direct diplomacy to prevail. The Chinese, it transpired, were not won over.
The Russians then poured salt on the Chinese wound with a sudden turnaround on their apparent willingness for sanctions. Two days earlier, Sunday, Nov. 15, Russian president Dmitry Medvedev stood beside Obama in Singapore on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific summit and said: "We are prepared to work further" to ensure Iran's nuclear program is only for peaceful purposes. "In case we fail, the other options remain on the table, in order to move the process in a different direction." The Russian media reported the Kremlin was "100 percent ready" to endorse new sanctions.
Medvedev says Yes, Putin decides No
Yet after the event, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Moscow sources report that the Russian president avoided committing himself to specific actions. And he became evasive when he was shown the harsh sanctions program drawn up by the US Treasury's Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, Stewart Levey.
Obama thus failed in his second effort to bring China and Russia aboard for a concerted international sanctions campaign against Iran.
On Tuesday, November 17 Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov drove another nail in the sanctions coffin when he reverted to the former anti-sanctions Kremlin position: "I would say that it is premature to say that these efforts have not been crowned with success," he said, referring to the international push to get Iran to sign off on a UN-mediated plan to ship Iran's enriched uranium overseas for processing.
"We are working for the agreements that were reached last month in Vienna… to be fully implemented, and we are aiming all of our efforts precisely at this," Lavrov told reporters in Moscow.
Lavrov refused to set a deadline for Iran to sign off on the plan.
A senior American source commented to DEBKA-Net-Weekly: "The Russian show comes round again and again. It starts with Medvedev willing to look at tougher sanctions in Iran, after which Lavrov goes to Prime Minister Putin, and the two sit down and draft a statement that torpedoes Medvedev's words to the Americans. Unfortunately for us, the last word in Moscow belongs to Putin and not to Medvedev."
Moscow worries over missing the Fordo plant
Overall, Obama and his team had the impression that the Russians they met were less interested in sanctions and more in finding out how their own intelligence services had the wool pulled over their eyes on Iran's second enrichment site for producing weapons-grade uranium at Fordo near Qom although, according the International Atomic Energy Agency, construction there had been going forward for seven years.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly intelligence sources report this embarrassing lapse is the talk of the day in Moscow's intelligence community. They cannot explain how American, Dutch, German, British and Israeli intelligence services all picked up on the facility while their own informants in Iran and their network of third-party sources kept them in ignorance.
Obama's entourage is convinced of a measure of coordination between the joint Obama-Hu appearance before the media in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, on November 17 and the Iranian Oil Minister Massoud Mirkazemi's snap announcement in Tehran that Iran had temporarily boosted gasoline production by about 30 percent, to show the West it can cope with any sanctions restricting its fuel imports.
The Iranian Oil Minister said the move to raise output by 14 million liters per day increased total output to 58.5 million liters. Domestic consumption stands at about 66.5 million liters per day.
In other words, an embargo on gasoline imports will not bring Tehran to halt its nuclear program. Beijing and Moscow are realistic about this and expect Washington to see the facts as they are.