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Chinese Companies Pursue 'Talk Now, Invest Later' With Iran

Companies around the globe have been reducing ties with Iran ahead of possible new U.N. sanctions against Tehran's controversial nuclear program. But a Chinese-owned company is taking a different approach on trade with Iran.

Traders from Singapore say China's Sinopec oil company is sending more than 200,000 barrels of gasoline to Iran. The move comes as more and more Western nations have cut or reduced business with the Islamic Republic fearing international sanctions.

Analyst Erica Downs from the Washington-based Brookings Institute told VOA China could be seizing an opportunity opened by Western nations to make some extra profit. But she also says Chinese companies could be making small deals with Iran now to get future multibillion dollar projects in the country.

"My sense is that Chinese oil companies are pursuing a strategy of 'talk now, invest later.' Companies are just trying to lay down a marker. They want to be first in line to actually work on these projects once the Iranian nuclear issue is resolved," he said.

But this policy may not work in the future. Pressure has hit close to home for China with the recent announcement that the Malaysian state oil company Petronas has stopped supplying gasoline to Iran. "If we do see Malaysian companies and Indian companies stopping projects in Iran as well, then that really puts China in a position where they alone are sort of out there doing what others dare not do and it will be interesting to see if they will continue to do that without the cover of companies from other countries," she said.

The bigger danger for China lies not inside Iran, but on a broader world stage. In an interview with VOA, China expert Daniel Michaeli says Iran's actions may keep some nations from doing business with the Islamic Republic.

But he says it will take a lot more to scare China away. "Something like Israeli movement toward an airstrike might potentially do it. It's ultimately only a serious regional escalation that would threaten China's interests directly," he said.

And he says for now pressure from outside countries is not forceful enough to change China's priorities. "The Chinese are ultimately interested first and foremost in maintaining political control over their own country, which depends on economic growth above all else. And while a nuclear armed Iran might be at the top of our foreign policy agenda (United States), for the Chinese, it just isn't," he said.

Chinese diplomats have met with representatives from the other four permanent U.N. Security Council members -- Britain, France, Russia and the United States -- plus Germany to discuss a new set of sanctions on Iran. However the group has not settled on how to curtail Iran's uranium enrichment.

U.S. President Barack Obama has said the United States wants an agreement on U.N. sanctions against Iran within weeks, not months.