Page 1 of 2 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
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
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
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:
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 ...
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
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
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
For the West, Amano also delivered the vital crisis-engendering soundbite,
although couched in terms of the inevitable "concerns":
raises concerns about the possible existence in Iran of past or current
undisclosed activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a
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
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.
newspaper debate inspired by Israel's anti-Iran initiative strikingly
illustrated China's ambivalence concerning its public role in the sanctions
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.