Can Obama's Iran-Sanctions Effort Be Saved?

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Pete Souza / White House

President Barack Obama meets with the Dalai Lama in the White House

Top U.S. diplomats are headed to Beijing this week to try and get derailed negotiations over U.N. Security Council sanctions against Iran back on track. President Barack Obama's recent decisions to meet with the Dalai Lama and allow a new arms sale to Taiwan have jeopardized talks with Beijing on the issue, senior White House and State Department officials acknowledged.

The U.S. and China need "to get over their reaction to the Dalai Lama's visit and the arms sale," National Security Adviser General James Jones told TIME last week. If sanctions against Iran are to move forward at the U.N., "we have more work to do with China," Jones said. "Hopefully we'll get back on track."

China suspended military exchanges and security talks with the U.S. and summoned Ambassador Jon Huntsman for a dressing-down when the $6.4 billion arms sale to Taiwan was cleared by the White House in late January. After Obama met with Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama on Feb. 18, the Chinese Foreign Ministry called Huntsman in again and registered China's objections to what Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu called the "baneful impact" of the meeting.

Initially, the Administration played down China's response, but the result of the decisions on Taiwan and the Dalai Lama has been to arrest "any forward movement" on Iran-sanctions talks, says a senior White House official. U.S.-China discussions over the sanctions have entered a "more intense phase," the official says. Winning Chinese support for new sanctions against Iran had been tough even before the Administration offended Beijing's sensibilities. Beijing does not share Washington's assessment of the threat represented by Iran's nuclear activities, and persuading the Chinese government to change course while symbolically slapping down Chinese concerns on their own doorstep won't be easy.

Last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified that it would be another month or two before the U.S. would introduce a sanctions resolution at the U.N. White House and State Department officials had previously said that a resolution could be ready in a matter of days.

The Administration appears to have miscalculated China's reaction to the arms sale and Dalai Lama visit. Immediately prior to the meeting between Obama and the Tibetan spiritual leader, a senior White House official told TIME that it wouldn't "affect [China's decision on Iran sanctions] one way or another." The White House believed that China's objections to that visit and the arms sale, which was cleared by the Administration on Jan. 29, would annoy China but wouldn't hurt the talks over Iran sanctions.

Now the Administration needs to convince China that the sanctions talks should not be linked to those two events — before trying to convince the skeptical government of the merits of adopting new sanctions. "I hope the Chinese will agree that these are not two issues over which you want to take a contrarian view and fragment the serious problem over Iran," Jones told TIME.

Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg and the National Security Council's top Asia aide, Jeffrey Bader, flew to Beijing on Monday for talks. The State Department said the trip had been planned a few weeks ago but had been put on the "back burner." Also on the agenda is the possibility of restarting six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear program and other issues of concern between the U.S. and China.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley played down the dispute over the arms sale and Dalai Lama meeting. "We think [China's support for sanctions is] still very workable, but it's going to take some time to piece together yet."