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    Middle East
     Dec 7, 2007
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A new Chinese red line over Iran
By M K Bhadrakumar

The conference on the Middle East in Annapolis in the United States last week seemed to be an exercise in self-delusion. Robert Fisk, who has chronicled the Levant for the past 31 years for the British media, somberly noted, "The Middle East is currently a hell disaster and the president of the United States thinks he is going to produce the crown jewels from a cabinet and forget Afghanistan and Iraq and Iran - and Pakistan, for that matter."

But in the days that followed, crown jewels did indeed begin to

tumble out of President George W Bush's cabinet. What awaits determination is whether Bush orchestrated it, or just let it happen.

In any case, the morning after the Annapolis shindig, we learnt that Syria and the US had a common choice in General Michel Suleiman (who also happens to be close to Hezbollah) for the unfilled Lebanese presidency. And then we saw on Sunday Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz entering the conference hall of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit in Doha flanked by Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. The GCC, flag-carrier of US regional strategy for three decades, had never before invited Iran to its meetings.

By Monday morning, the Bush administration had released declassified extracts of the sensational National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on the Iranian nuclear problem, a report lying in the cabinet in the Oval Office in the White House for some time. The White House said on Wednesday that Bush was told in August that Iran may have suspended its nuclear weapons program. And now we learn that Bush will be packing his bags for his first-ever visit in his presidency to the Holy Land and Palestine.

Of course, the "hell disaster" in the Middle East that Fisk mentioned remains palpable still. Israel said on Tuesday it is seeking bids to build more than 300 new homes in a disputed east Jerusalem neighborhood. By nightfall on Tuesday, 21 rockets and mortars had been fired on Israel from Gaza, bringing the 12-month total to over 2,000. Yet, hardly a week remains for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the president of the Palestinian National Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, to meet in the first follow-up session of the Annapolis meeting.

It is premature to say whether there is a pattern in all this. There is no credible evidence of a compelling vision at Annapolis either. Between a final-status peace and interim measures, a wide chasm undoubtedly lies. The Middle East sits on plate glass and it is agonizing to contemplate that glass can give way. All we know for sure is that the NIE signals that the Middle East isn't going to be the same again.

China, Russia vindicated
The NIE means the Bush administration cannot resort to a military strike against Iran during its remaining term in office, as it says that Iran "halted" its secret nuclear weapons program in the autumn of 2003. The military option simply doesn't exist anymore, no matter US officials' grandstanding.

Equally, the Bush administration's diplomatic campaign to get the international community to back tougher sanctions against Iran runs into a cul-de-sac. Washington has been lobbying for a third round of United Nations sanctions against Iran. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice talked to their Chinese and Russian counterparts. But Beijing and Moscow have taken serious note of the NIE. Probably, their intelligence already knew of its contents. At any rate, they reiterated their aversion for another UN Security Council sanctions resolution.

China's ambassador at the United States, Wang Guangya, commented, "I think the [UN] council members will have to consider that [NIE], because I think we all start from the presumption that now things have changed." Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said, "We will assess the situation on proposals for a new resolution in the United Nations Security Council on the basis of [several] factors, including the publication by the United States of data showing that Iran does not have a military nuclear program."

Lavrov added that Moscow had no intelligence pointing toward any Iranian nuclear weapons program, even before 2003. Lavrov also said separately following a meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, at the Kremlin on Tuesday, "We noted the willingness of Iran to adhere to cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA], and Iran again confirmed its adherence to an observation of the [nuclear] Non-Proliferation Treaty."

China offers mediation
But, having said that, China's stance on the Iran problem has acquired some unique features. Prominent American strategic thinker and former national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote after a recent visit to China that it is "timely and historically expedient" for Washington to enter into a strategic dialogue with Beijing regarding applying their shared experience in dealing with the North Korean nuclear problem to the potential crisis with Iran.

Brzezinski highlighted three points. First, in "wide-ranging private conversations", Chinese leaders impressed on him their worry about the financial and political fallouts of a US-Iran collision. Second, Chinese leaders pointed out to Brzezinski that Iranian denials of a nuclear weapons program in fact create a window of opportunity for Washington to contrive a face-saving arrangement for an internationally sanctioned, non-threatening Iranian nuclear program. "In China's view, the United States should avoid being drawn into tit-for-tat salvos" with the Iranian leadership, but should rather focus on a formula that "effectively forsakes the allegedly unwanted nuclear option". Third, China could help break the US-Iran stalemate, but the US should be "more active in the negotiating process with Iran".

China's motivations are completely self-centered. Beijing doesn't want its economic relationship with Tehran disrupted. Iran is a major supplier of oil to China. China intends to boost its bilateral trade with Iran to over US$100 billion annually in the near future. (There is no reason to doubt China's capacity to do so.) China supplies weapons and industrial products to Iran and participates in major projects, such as the Tehran metro.

Interestingly, Brzezinski gave a logical explanation as to why the US and China should become equal stakeholders. He pointed out that cascading US-Iran tensions could cause a more dramatic shift in the global distribution of power than what the international system witnessed when the Cold War receded into history. He explained that unlike the US and China, Russia has an "uncertain role" in the Iran crisis. That is because Russia is an increasingly revisionist state, and denying Chinese and American access to Caspian and Central Asian oil is at the core of the Russian geostrategy. Also, Russia fears "potential Chinese encroachments on Russia's empty but mineral-rich eastern areas and American political encroachments on the populated western areas" of the former Soviet Union.

Therefore, Brzezinski argued that unlike the US and China, Russia might even stand to gain from a political conflict in the Persian Gulf. Russia would certainly stand to gain out of a dramatic spike in oil prices, unlike the US and China, which would be badly hit. More important, high oil prices resulting from Persian Gulf tensions would leave Europe and China with no option but to depend heavily on Russian energy supplies. That is to say, "Russia would clearly be the financial and geopolitical beneficiary" of the Iran crisis. Brzezinski concluded, "A comprehensive strategic dialog between the United States and China regarding 

Continued 1 2 

Iran seizes on US turnaround (Dec 6, '07)

Spies show Bush a way forward on Iran (Dec 6, '07)

US spies concoct a potent Iran brew (Dec 5, '07)

1. The coming China crash

2. India flies the red flag

3. Spies show Bush a way forward on Iran

4. The shock of a thousand

5. Leave, or we will behead you

6. US spies concoct a potent
Iran brew

7. Iran seizes on US turnaround

8. Hirsi Ali, atheism and Islam

9. The Syrians are back

10. India flies the red flag

(24 hours to 11:59 pm ET, Dec 5, 2007)


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