Beijing is monitoring the evolving United States-led Iran sanctions campaign with alarm and – as conflicting responses to an Israeli initiative indicate – some uncertainty. It suspects the Barack Obama administration may be as interested in leveraging the Iran crisis in order to reassert America’s world leadership at China’s expense as it is in removing Iran’s nuclear weapons threat.
Superficially, the current imbroglio over Iran’s nuclear program recapitulates the alignment of forces familiar from previous years: Israel and the United States as the hostile outliers, the ambivalent EU in the middle, Russia, India, and the Middle Eastern states fishing in troubled waters, and Turkey and China siding with Iran against sanctions and for negotiations.
This combination has so far produced three toothless UN sanctions, even as Iran sidles closer to the weaponization red line. However, from the Chinese perspective, 2010 is not 2006 (UN Security Council Resolution 1737), 2007 (UNSC 1747), or 2008 (UNSC 1803). Barack Obama is not George W Bush.
President Obama seems determined to demonstrate that, unlike president Bush, he can orchestrate an effective, multilateral diplomatic campaign that employs the "smart power" of sanctions as a genuine and decisive alternative to military force.
Since he entered office one year ago, Obama has methodically pursued a campaign to isolate Iran diplomatically. He gained a significant milestone last week with the negative report on Iran’s nuclear program by the new IAEA director-general. With expressions of support from the European Union, Russia, and the nations of the Middle East, Obama has announced that China is in his sights – the last domino that needs to fall in order to make a new round of Iran sanctions a reality.
At the heart of the US strategy is leaving China with no choice but to abstain from sanctions, according to a FOX News report:
China is not a part of the sanctions talks now because the administration wants to unify the other nations ahead of what promises to be what one official called a "long hard slog". The strategy is to persuade China to abstain before the Security Council, a move that would allow sanctions to proceed without a formal Chinese endorsement. "As we move toward a UN resolution, we think at the end of the day, China will be there and will do its part," Obama said this month.
On one level, this would appear diplomatically maladroit. China relies on Iran for 10% of its petroleum imports. It regards itself as the key stakeholder in the Iran issue, a superpower that should be consulted – and heeded – first and foremost, not an obstinate troublemaker to be bum-rushed into sanctions at the last minute. As one Chinese analyst put it, sanctions against Iran’s energy exports are in reality sanctions against China.
Leaving China for last may simply be an extension of Obama’s methodical but psychologically obtuse grind-it-out approach to coalition building. Or, as China fears, it may be a conscious decision to stigmatize China in the eyes of the EU and the Middle East as the last, selfish hold-out – the Iran sanctions partypooper. Perhaps it is a little of both.
In any case, Beijing sees isolating China as a significant, unnecessary, and unwelcome consequence of the US-led Iran sanctions campaign.
As a recent editorial in China’s authoritative Global Times stated:
Recently in Western public opinion, there has been a call to use the Iran issue to isolate China. This is extremely superficial … China is a big country and its interests must be respected. China’s dilemma must be sympathized with. China’s proposal opposing sanctions must be understood …
Beijing’s distaste for the Iran sanctions campaign is exacerbated by the growing mistrust between China and Washington in the wake of the Copenhagen and Google debacles.
Beijing’s unspoken fear appears to be that the Obama administration has plans to exploit the momentum generated by a UNSC resolution to push through the "crippling" national sanctions urged by politicians on the left and right in the United States, within many EU countries, and by Israel, against Iran’s energy exports.
In other words, China, by providing an abstention in the Security Council would, in essence, sanction itself or, at the very least, provide Washington with powerful additional leverage in its burgeoning political and economic struggle with Beijing.
China need look no further than the successful culmination of the eight-year US campaign to neuter the IAEA as a prelude to Iran sanctions to realize that something is cooking – and China is not welcome in the kitchen.
It can be said that the current Iran crisis began brewing in earnest in July 2009, during the bitterly contested election for a successor to Mohammed ElBaradei as Director General of the IAEA. ElBaradei had attempted to act as a buffer between the West and the have-nots, asserting the rights of Iran and other countries to peaceful use of nuclear energy. His efforts earned him the undying resentment of the United States, which made a concerted effort – including tapping his phones for potentially damaging revelations – to prevent his third term in 2005 and replace him with somebody more tractable.
The Bush administration effort, spearheaded by John Bolton, foundered on ElBaradei’s international prestige as the Nobel Prize winner who got it right on Iraq’s WMDs. However, the Obama administration had better luck. In July 2009, after six ballots and protracted arm-twisting, the candidate seen as ElBaradei’s philosophical successor, Abdul Samad Minty of South Africa, was defeated in favor of the West’s preferred choice, Japan’s Yukiya Amano.
With Amano’s election it was understood that the IAEA – in particular, the Director General’s Office of External Relations and Policy Coordination (EXPO) – would no longer try to act as an information filter or intermediary between the West and Tehran. EXPO was detested by the West as ElBaradei’s chosen instrument for controlling the content and characterization of reports flowing to the IAEA Board of Governors and UN Security Council.
In December, James Acton of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, described the significance of Amano’s election:
Yukiya Amano has positioned himself as a very different kind of leader than ElBaradei. He has indicated his desire to play a much less high-profile role and has spoken of the need to depoliticize the IAEA.
… The United States and most developed nations supported Amano, in part because they believe that he is less likely to soft-pedal reports on Iran, but more generally because they believe that in long run he will be a less divisive leader.
In February, Amano (from the point of view of the West) delivered (or, from Iran’s viewpoint washed his hands a la Pontius Pilate), preparing a report that drew new attention to long-held information pointing to nuclear-weapons related activities by Iran (that ElBaradei had continually downplayed, to the outrage of the IAEA’s Department of Safeguards) and highlighted Tehran’s non-responsiveness to IAEA requests for certain information.
For the West, Amano also delivered the vital crisis-engendering soundbite, although couched in terms of the inevitable "concerns":
Altogether this raises concerns about the possible existence in Iran of past or current undisclosed activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile.
This fresh expression of concern about the Iranian nuclear menace allowed the West to discard and supersede the outgoing ElBaradei regime’s last attempt to engage Iran – the proposal that Iranian low-enriched uranium (LEU) be exchanged for fresh fuel rods for the Tehran Research Reactor.
Indeed, the Western nations were so primed to respond immediately with coordinated expressions of horror, concern, alarm, and disappointment that it was overlooked that the report was leaked and therefore still unofficial.
Iran noticed, and acidly suggested that Amano had the opportunity to correct what it characterized as the "politicized" aspects of the report before he actually presented it to the IAEA Board of Governors on March 1.
Barring a change of heart by Amano, it appears that the necessary building block for UN sanctions – an overtly critical IAEA report – will be part of the public record by mid-March. At that point Iran will be called on to demonstrate satisfactory "cooperation" – in practice, often pursuit of a set of vague, constantly shifting, and ultimately unattainable goalposts – with the IAEA, or brace itself for another round of sanctions.
And then, around mid-year 2010, the Obama administration expects China to stand and deliver the final building block needed for the Security Council resolution, either by abstaining and exposing Iran to potentially "crippling" follow-on national sanctions, or casting a veto and joining Iran in pariah status on the geopolitical sidelines.
In a sign of the uncertainty surrounding its vote, China is preparing to receive a delegation from Iran’s mortal enemy, Israel, to discuss the sanctioning of Beijing’s chief energy ally in the Persian Gulf – as it debates the merits of Israel’s position on Iran in the editorial pages of one of China’s most authoritative newspapers.
Ha’aretz reported on February 21 that Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu, newly returned from Moscow, is sending a delegation headed by Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer to Beijing at the end of February to discuss sanctions.
Again, a conscious (and to China undoubtedly unappreciated) effort was made to paint Beijing as little more than the last piece in the Iran sanctions jigsaw puzzle:
Netanyahu’s government has largely neglected China in its diplomatic efforts to stop the Iranian nuclear program. Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman have not visited China and held no significant talks with Chinese officials on the Iranian issue, concentrating instead on the United States, Russia, France, the United Kingdom and Germany.
The newspaper debate inspired by Israel’s anti-Iran initiative strikingly illustrated China’s ambivalence concerning its public role in the sanctions debate.
On one level, it is surprising that there is a debate at all.
Israel’s assumption of the role of coordinator and promoter of the campaign to sanction Iran for its nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) violations presents a few contradictions.
Israel is not a signatory to the NPT. It maintains an undeclared arsenal estimated to contain over 200 nuclear warheads that is a major factor in Middle East instability. In ironic counterpoint to its complaints against Iran, in the past Israel seems to have proliferated more than nuclear weapons technology to the apartheid regime in South Africa; it allegedly supplied the government in Pretoria with six functional nuclear weapons and the ballistic missiles to mount them on.
However, a Chinese social scientist sympathetic to Israel, Yin Gong, made the case for engaging with Israel at Iran’s expense in the pages of Global Times on February 20. The title pretty much says it all: "If Iran is Unyielding, the Iran Nuclear Situation Can Only End in Tragedy".
Yin framed the issue by stating: "The ball has never been in China’s court. It’s usually in Iran’s court, especially now."
His message was that the Iran crisis is Iran’s fault, and China should decouple from Iran and consider its relations with all countries of the Middle East, including its "Arab, Jewish, and Turkish friends in the Middle East".
He declared: "Under no circumstances could China undertake to please Iran and at the same time hurt the feelings of the Arabs and other countries."
In a remarkably provocative statement, Yin assumed that Iran’s intent was to develop a nuclear deterrent – an assumption which, if officially held by the Chinese government, would virtually mandate Security Council sanctions and possibly military action.
We understand Iran desires a nuclear deterrent. China’s nuclear deterrent was formed in adversity under the pressure of the West. However, times change, China and Iran are both signatories to the Non Proliferation Treaty and both should respect that principle.
The appearance of this article in Chinese state media undoubtedly delivered a jolt to readers in Tehran together with their morning coffee.
However, Yin’s op-ed was paired with an immediate riposte from Wang Nan of People’s Daily, arguing the opposite point – and making it clear that Yin’s op-ed, a slap at Iran and a gesture toward Israel – could not be construed as official Chinese policy.
Wang, previously the People’s Daily’s correspondent in Pakistan and now leader of the paper’s Africa-Asia team in Beijing, indignantly declared that the persistent mess in the Middle East was attributable to two reasons: the US tilt towards Israel, and the Western predilection for interfering in the region. He raked Yin over the coals for fixating on Iran’s alleged desire to develop nuclear weapons while ignoring Israel’s alleged possession of nuclear weapons.
Wang concluded – as the title of his answer op-ed stated – "If the West is Unyielding, the Iran Nuclear Question Will Get Worse", adding parenthetically "for everyone".
The appearance of these dueling op-eds on an issue of such pressing importance is a measure of China’s ambivalence – or studied ambiguity.
China, wary of becoming isolated in the Middle East, will no doubt give Israel a courteous hearing. Beijing has distanced itself from Tehran, ignoring Iranian efforts to involve it as godfather for the doomed plan to exchange fuel rods. It has expressed its resentment at being "held hostage" on the sanctions issue by both sides and has stated with surprising directness that China’s interests, and China’s interests alone, will determine its response to Western calls for a "yea" vote or abstention on sanctions.
However, China is unlikely to consider the promised gratitude of its "Arab, Jewish, and Turkish friends" alone as sufficient incentive for a risky-looking abstention on a UNSC resolution sanctioning Iran. A hint of China’s perspective on the matter – and a possible alternative strategy – is contained in the bland February 11 statement by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson on the Iran issue:
China hopes relevant parties [will] enhance diplomatic efforts and seek a comprehensive, long-term and proper settlement of the Iranian nuclear issue through dialogue and negotiation with a view to maintaining the international nonproliferation regime and peace and stability of the Middle East region. China is ready to make joint efforts with the international community to play a constructive role for the resolution of the issue.
Given the reality of Israel’s undeclared nuclear arsenal and the effective collapse of the NPT regime with the India nuclear deal with the United States, China’s decision to accentuate the importance of the "international nonproliferation regime" in the hopeless terrain of the Middle East is rather striking. It indicates that Beijing may side with Iran, the current if annoyingly errant NPT member, rather than Israel, the unrepentant rogue nuclear state.
China may well decide that, despite the emergence of the IAEA as a hostile venue to Iran, it may be in China’s best interests to quarantine the Iran dossier inside the IAEA for the time being and try to keep the issue out of the Security Council until China can arrange a more favorable alignment of forces.
Ironically, invoking the NPT also offers China its best chance for diplomatic counter-leverage against the United States. The central justification for Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize was his commitment to universal nuclear disarmament.
With the US president chairing the session on September 24, 2009, the UN Security Council passed a resolution calling on all nations of the world to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty as "non-nuclear weapon states", sign and ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and support negotiations for a fissile materials control treaty
This created awkward moments for India, which is perfectly happy with the special deal it struck with the US, is unwilling to enter an international organization as junior partner to China (one of the five NWS or nuclear weapons states), and is probably not quite ready to give up nuclear tests to perfect its weaponry.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh attempted to sidestep the issue gracefully this month by stating that India would only agree to join the NPT as the sixth member of the NWS club, an honor that China is unlikely to afford it.
Israel, which insists on keeping its nuclear arsenal undeclared and outside any international system, has even less interest in signing the NPT.
Reframing the Iran nuclear issue as an NPT matter could allow China to argue that prolonged dialogue at the IAEA level is preferable to premature and excessive sanctions that might drive Iran out of the NPT and even trigger the collapse of the institution that Obama wishes to universalize.
At the very least, China could also point to Iran’s credentials as a bona fide IAEA member (albeit in rather bad standing), in contrast to the NPT-unfriendly attitudes of US allies India and Israel, and demand an embarrassing clarification from Washington on its perceived double standard.
In order to keep the matter inside the IAEA, Iran would have to back off on its ostentatious uranium enrichment campaign and adopt a more cooperative attitude with the IAEA. The Chinese have made it clear these are things they would very much like to see Iran do. As the editorial in Global Times stated:
When the survival of a nation’s political authority hangs in the balance, any government would possibly decide to stand tall and confront the danger. Only with patience, patience, and more patience can both sides obtain the necessary trust. It isn’t through firing off ballistic missiles, raising the level of uranium enrichment …
It would be up to Iran to fight a delaying action against determined US attempts to shift the Iran dossier up to the Security Council for sanctions and, one might imagine, accumulate in the process a little more political capital with China against a day when Chinese support in the UNSC is finally needed.
If this is a case, China would be looking for a gesture from Iran that it was ready to back away from the crisis, engage with the IAEA, and provide its ally, China, with some much-appreciated breathing space. There is a sign that an Iranian IAEA charm offensive may have already begun. On February 22, Iran’s Fars News Service reported:
"A high-ranking delegation from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is in Iran to study Iran’s nuclear safety systems," a spokesman of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) announced on Monday.
The delegation came at the invitation of the AEOI, will investigate civilian reactor safety systems, and presumably return to Geneva with a testimonial to Iran’s nuclear good citizenship, at least in this regard.
The first (and of this writing apparently only) non-Iranian news service to pick up the story was China’s official Xinhua news agency. The Xinhua correspondent (An Guozhang, an Arabic-speaking veteran of two four-year tours in the Middle East) added an analytical remark absent from the English language version of the Fars report. An stated:
Iran’s intention in inviting this high-level delegation to visit Iran at this time is for observation of Iran’s peaceful use of nuclear energy, with the intention of eliminating international suspicions concerning Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
Iran’s apparent public relations offensive continued on February 22, as Tehran formally responded for the first time to the Tehran Research Reactor LEU-for-fuel swap proposal.
The US State Department hastened to dismiss the offer as "unacceptable" and, for good measure, made one of those upside-down statements that seemed to apply more to the party that had dismissed the offer as unacceptable than the party that had made the offer:
"But you actually have to have a willing partner to engage. The fact is Iran makes these series of statements, day after day, week after week. But it refuses to come to the table and actually negotiate in good faith, and address the concerns that the international community has," [State Department spokesman Philip Crowley] said.
The West has become quite adept at dismissing appeals by targeted regimes for more time, trust, understanding and due process.
But Tehran’s real audience for the public offer may have been its unhappy allies in Beijing, and not its sanctions-oriented enemies in Washington.
An Iranian rapprochement with the IAEA may – or may not – spare China the need to cast an embarrassing and dangerous vote in the UN Security Council.
PETER LEE is a business man who has spent thirty years observing, analyzing, and writing on Asian affairs. Lee can be reached at peterrlee-2000@yahoo.
A version of this article appeared in Asia Times.