China plays lap-dog in sanctions ploy
By Peter Lee
China's plan to survive and thrive amid the Barack Obama administration's Iran
sanctions drive appears to be on track - albeit with more than a little public
diplomatic cost and humiliation.
China's tactics have the potential to weaken sanctions at the national as well
as the United Nations level. Therefore, Beijing may still earn the grudging
gratitude of Iran - and even the United States, whose push to extend sanctions
it has agreed to support.
When the sanctions drive was threatened by the fuel swap agreement between
Iran, Turkey and Brazil (hereinafter the ITB swap) China gritted its teeth and,
instead of supporting this dramatic and apparently genuine exercise in
developing-world diplomacy, undercut it by acquiescing to Washington's rushed
riposte: the announcement that a draft sanctions resolution
approved by the "Iran Six" would be circulated to the Security Council.
To observers who expected China to champion the rights and interests of nations
outside the Western bloc, it was not a pretty picture. The resolution
announcement incensed Brazil and Turkey, two natural allies in China's plans
for a new, post-US world order.
Iran's reaction to China's actions has been muted, even though Foreign Minister
Manouchehr Mottaki was reportedly thunderstruck when a Reuters correspondent
told him about the resolution announcement on May 19 in Dushanbe, Tajikistan.
Within China, indignant netizens employed salty language to excoriate China's
capitulation to the United States - and its wordy, parsing efforts to justify
the government's actions.
One aggrieved commenter wrote: "'So, you want to live like a whore and then
have a ceremonial arch erected to commemorate your chastity! Don't think the
Chinese people don't understand what's going on!''
As China's Foreign Ministry reached out to Turkey and Brazil to praise the fuel
swap deal and repair China's standing in the developing world, two
complementary editorials in China's influential Global Times - one in English
for a Western audience and one in Chinese for everybody else. These laid out
Beijing's case and labored to salvage China's public image as an independent
and principled world power.
At the same time it was made clear that China was not going to attempt to
exploit the ITB swap announcement in order to embarrass the United States and
decouple from the sanctions drive.
In fact, the editorials laid out a position comforting to the United States:
that more than the fuel swap agreement was needed if Iran wished to avoid
The English-language editorial stated:
Should Iran really make up its
mind to break the long impasse, more substantive steps are needed before the
rest of the world can be more convinced.
Implementing the fuel-swap deal is certainly one option for Tehran to assure
the world of the sole peaceful purpose of its nuclear program.
There are more feasible options available. Iran's claims of trustworthiness
will be more persuasive if greater transparency is given to its nuclear
Tehran would be shortsighted and unwise if it merely manipulated the fuel-swap
deal as a tactic to stave off more UN-led sanctions.
... it is the choices up to Iran that can make peace a reality in the region.
The Chinese-language editorial, while criticizing US
Iran has not made sufficient efforts for
foreigners to believe her.
In principle, the agreement announced two days before ... is a good thing. But
it is not enough to remove the suspicion ... additional actions are necessary
... If Iran wants to break this deadlock, it has to take concrete actions and
prove to the world that none of its activities have anything to do with nuclear
The Western media profess to believe that Chinese
support was extorted by threats to come down hard on China on the issues of
currency valuation and the Cheonan, the South Korean warship which Seoul
claims was sunk by a North Korean torpedo.
However, it appears that the situation leading up to the sanctions resolution
announcement on May 18 was quite the opposite.
The Obama administration, desperate to keep the ITB swap deal from derailing
the sanctions push, was forced to finalize its negotiations with Russia and
China in conditions that can charitably be described as adverse.
Russia and China were in the position to make demands - and they did, as the
New York Times reported:
Among the many compromises that the United
States accepted to get China and Russia to back new sanctions against Iran was
an agreement to limit any reference to the bank - or Iran's entire energy
sector, for that matter - to the introductory paragraphs rather than the
sanctions themselves, according to American officials and other diplomats,
yielding a weaker resolution than the United States would have liked.
The standoff between Washington and Beijing over what economic measures to
include in the final resolution consumed the last 10 days of the negotiations,
diplomats said. 
Now, UN sanctions appear inevitable -
thanks to China.
However, China would harbor no illusions that the UN draft resolution would be
the last word on sanctions.
China's support of UN sanctions are best understood in the context of the real
sanctions - national and EU sanctions to be imposed on Iran's allies and
trading partners after the UN sanctions pass.
It has not escaped the notice of China nor Iran that the US media routinely
state that negotiations with Russia and China have diluted the UN resolution to
the point of meaninglessness, and only follow-on sanctions can achieve the
Since the UN sanctions are universally regarded as a necessary precondition to
national sanctions, it would appear counterintuitive for China to surrender its
leverage over UN sanctions by spurning the ITB swap - which provided adequate
pretext for slow-walking the UN sanctions process - and, in the Global Times
editorial, even placing additional, seemingly unmeetable demands on Iran beyond
the swap as a condition for halting sanctions.
Beijing's cooperation, including an acknowledgement that the sanctions vote
would occur within three weeks - even under favorable negotiating conditions
when it could conceivably have demanded that the UN sanctions process wait on
the outcome of the ITB swap - implies that Beijing and Washington achieved an
understanding concerning US national sanctions as well.
Immediately following the announcement of the UN draft, Global Times printed a
long, self-justifying background piece by "a knowledgeable party at China's UN
Mission in New York".
At a time when one would think China would be at pains to describe the draft as
something forced on it by the United States, the unnamed source goes out of his
or her way to describe the weeks of intensive negotiations and 20 bilateral
meetings between the US and Chinese representatives that culminated in the
draft resolution which it endorsed, with the unequivocal statement: "we have no
objections to the draft".
The source lays out the principles underlying China's agreement to the
sanctions process, with the apparent intention that these
painstakingly-negotiated conditions should be binding on the US as well as
These should be understood as a signal that China is asserting that the US must
observe these principles not only for the drafting of the UN sanctions but in
the execution of American national sanctions.
The key economic points, as described in the Global Times backgrounder:
important interests are maintained. China's important interests are ... in the
matters of Iran's energy, trade, and financial sectors. China believes that
normal economics and trade should not be punished because of the Iran question
nor should those countries that maintain normal, legal economic relations with
Iran be punished ... Through negotiations, this point was satisfied, doing a
relatively good job of upholding China's ... important interests. 
These remarks - and the remarkably forthright support for the American
sanctions position reflected in the Global Times editorials - can therefore be
construed as Beijing's public affirmation of the deal China made with the Obama
administration to keep national sanctions in check.
As noted above, at China's insistence, references to Iran's financial and
energy sectors were banished to the beginning of the draft resolution, instead
of being referenced in the articles outlining actual sanctions - thereby
removing the potential justification that harsher US national sanctions were
necessary in order to implement the UN security council resolution mandate.
For its part, the US engaged in spinning of its own to avoid the impression
that it had given away the store during the rushed weekend negotiation.
On the issue of Russia's key military sale to Iran - the S300 anti-aircraft
battery that is supposed to give Israel conniptions - the US told its sources
that the sale would be banned. The Russians went public with a statement that
they could sell it.
As for the concessions to China, US sources took pains to assert that the
Iranian finance and energy sector was still fair game:
That is enough
to pursue companies dealing with either the banks or the energy sector,
American officials said. Whenever the negotiations stalled, Ambassador Susan E
Rice, the American envoy, warned the Chinese that any measures passed by
Congress in the absence of a United Nations resolution would likely have much
greater consequences for Chinese banks and its trade relations with the United
States, one United Nations diplomat said. 
However, a close
parsing of this paragraph seems to indicate that China actually did get what it
wanted: Beijing's interests will be targeted if - and only if - China doesn't
back the UN sanctions resolution.
Once the Security Council resolution is out of the way, US national sanctions
are coming, as a matter of domestic political necessity and, perhaps, the Obama
administration's attempt to entice Israel into the faltering non-proliferation
regime by isolating and incapacitating Iran.
Maximum US national sanctions go far beyond the UN - by design.
Pounding on Iran and supporting Israel are a matter of great importance in the
A bipartisan Iran sanctions bill - HR 2194: Comprehensive Iran Sanctions,
Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2009 - represents the latest iteration in
the so far futile pursuit by congress of the sanctions holy grail - a shut down
of every global loophole that lets Iran fund its energy development, export
oil, and import gasoline.
The bill has been passed by overwhelming majorities in both houses in slightly
different forms and is now in the hands of a conference committee that will
produce the final bill for Obama's signature.
Whether or not the bill includes an explicit exemption for "cooperating
countries" (aka China and Russia) as requested by the White House and
absolutely detested by pro-Israel and anti-administration hardliners, Obama
will have the final discretion in determining what sanctions to apply, and to
And it appears that it will be very difficult for Obama to sanction China after
Beijing's full-throated and politically costly support for UN sanctions.
That in turn may render moot the vaunted US sanctions against countries and
companies involved in Iran's energy sector and supplying gasoline.
If US companies are sanctioned and China is not - and, under the draft UN
sanctions resolution, presumably the maximum that China will accept, Beijing
has no obligation to engage in energy and finance sector sanctions - Iran will
suffer minimal disruption, China will accrue the maximum benefits, and American
companies will be the losers.
If the United States threatens to unleash Stuart Levey, the US under secretary
for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, and Treasury hounds on Chinese banks
doing business with Iran, the Obama administration can expect, if not open
defiance, a rapidly increasing interest by Beijing in developing-world
diplomatic initiatives to defuse the Iran crisis that undercuts the rickety
If, on the other hand, the Obama administration and Secretary of Defense Robert
Gates are less interested in pursuing dead-end sanctions than they are in
creating the geopolitical space to continue negotiations with Iran over its
nuclear program, China's resistance may provide a welcome excuse for moderating
the sanctions regime and preventing a slide into confrontation.
In any case, China, by coming - and staying - on board the sanctions bandwagon
on its own terms, makes it much more likely that national as well as UN
sanctions will be less stringent than Iran's most ferocious adversaries hope.
This background is perhaps the best explanation of why Iran's public criticism
of China's participation in the UN sanctions resolution exercise has been
China on the inside of the sanctions regime is a much more effective bulwark
against aggressive, disruptive sanctions than it could be standing alone with
Iran against the US-led campaign.
1. Iran nuclear issue demands careful handling, Global Times, May 20, 2010.
2. Click here,
3. Sanctions Effort May Open Door to Press Iran Central Bank, New York Times,
May 19, 2010.
4. Click here,
5. Sanctions Effort May Open Door to Press Iran Central Bank, New York Times,
May 19, 2010.
Peter Lee writes on East and South Asian affairs and their intersection
with US foreign policy.