Page 1 of 2 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
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
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
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