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    Greater China
     Feb 25, 2010
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China fine-tunes its Iran strategy
By Peter Lee

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. 

Continued 1 2  

Now it's all about Iran sanctions (Feb 10, '10)

Bubble bursts on Iran nuclear options
(Jan 20, '10)

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(24 hours to 11:59pm ET, Feb 23, 2010)


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