Iran caught up in China-US spat
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi
Just days after United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton used the
occasion of a speech in Paris to lecture China on its national security
interests and warned Beijing of "economic insecurity and diplomatic isolation"
if it did not sign onto new sanctions against Iran, China hit back.
On Saturday, Beijing escalated its rhetoric against US arms sales to Taiwan,
which it views as part of its territory, by suspending all military exchanges
with the US, summoning the American
ambassador to Beijing and using Clinton's own language about "long-term
Clinton had warned China it would come under a "lot of pressure" to recognize
the threat from Iran's nuclear program and to join international calls for
further sanctions. She said pressure would come as Washington and other powers
"move away from the engagement track, which has not produced the results that
some had hoped for, and move towards the pressure and sanctions track" to curb
Iran's nuclear ambitions, which Tehran insists are for peaceful purposes.
Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said of the US's US$6.4 billion arms
package for Taiwan that Washington should "truly respect China's core interests
and major concerns, and immediately rescind the mistaken decision to sell arms
to Taiwan, and stop selling arms to Taiwan to avoid damaging broader China-US
The official Xinhua news agency followed this up with hints that the sales
could damage diplomacy involving the US's efforts to get China's backing in its
nuclear stand-offs with Iran and North Korea. It said the sales "will cause
seriously negative effects on China-US exchanges and cooperation in important
areas, and ultimately will lead to consequences that neither side wishes to
A commentary in the official China Daily chimed in, "From now on, the US shall
not expect cooperation from China on a wide range of major regional and
international issues. If you don't care about our interests, why should we care
Among the sales to Taiwan, still subject to congressional review, would be
Black Hawk helicopters built by Sikorsky Aircraft, a unit of United
Technologies; Lockheed Martin-built and Raytheon co-integrated Patriot missile
defenses and Harpoon land and sea attack missiles built by Boeing.
The row with China comes at a bad time for the US in terms of Iran. Washington
needs all the support it can get in the United Nations Security Council if it
is to get new sanctions on Iran approved; an aggrieved China could prevent this
from happening and force the US further down the road of imposing a further
round of unilateral sanctions, something that will deepen the divide between
Tehran and Washington.
Richard Haass, the president of the US Council on Foreign Relations and
traditionally a foreign policy "realist", recently said that "Iran will prove
to be the most compelling foreign policy issue of 2010". He also recently wrote
in a Newsweek article titled "Enough is enough" that "Iran may be closer to
profound political change than at any time since the revolution that ousted the
shah 30 years ago", and "the United States, European governments and others
should shift their Iran policy towards increasing the prospects for [that]
change". (See Sanctions,
regime change take center stage Asia Times Online, January 29,2010.)
Haass' endorsement of the "regime change" option, long promoted by
neo-conservatives and hawks, misses the point that Iran has weathered the storm
following last June's disputed presidential elections that resulted in months
of street protests and unrest. Tehran has also reasserted itself in regional
diplomacy by, among other things, refusing to attend last week's international
conference on Afghanistan in London, which was accused by Tehran of meddling in
Iran's internal affairs.
The fixation with the "Iran threat" also overlooks the stalled Middle East
peace process and the dangers ahead of another flare-up between Israel and the
Arabs as a result of Washington's inability to exert pressure on Israel.
Clinton has urged China to follow in the footsteps of the US and its allies on
Iran even though there are strong voices of opposition within the US to the
confrontational path being charted in the US Congress in the form of an Iran
sanctions act. (See Obama losing control of Iran policy, Asia Times Online, February 1, 2010)
Two versions of this act have been adopted, one by the House of Representative
and one by the US Senate, and the differences between them need to be hammered
out before it can be fully legislated and sent to the Oval Office for President
Barack Obama's endorsement.
In a stinging rebuke of this pending legislation, the US Chamber of Commerce
has sent a letter to the White House, warning, "The proposed sanctions would
incite economic, diplomatic and legal conflicts with US allies and could
frustrate joint action against Iran."
Last December, in a letter to US Senator John Kerry, a top US State Department
official, James Steinberg, used the same argument to advise the senate of the
probable unwanted consequences of unilateral sanctions on the US's allies, such
as the Europeans, who have extensive trade relations with Iran.
Although the letter did not mention any country by name, it is abundantly clear
that China, which enjoyed total trade of about $27 billion with Iran in 2009,
tops the list. The US Congress opted to ignore the State Department's input and
has rushed ahead with the sanctions bill. The bill is ostensibly meant to
"empower" the president, but in reality it pushes Obama's engagement approach
more towards "the pressure and sanctions track", to paraphrase Clinton in her
Congress is effectively getting ahead of the White House on an important
foreign policy issue that, as is now happening with respect to China, bristles
with severe collateral damage.
It should not be forgotten that despite all the talk of "Iran's nuclear threat"
by US officials and media pundits, the US intelligence community has (so far)
withstood increasing pressure to be cowered into revising its December 2007
finding that Iran's nuclear program has been peaceful since 2003. Some media
may be awash with stories of a new intelligence report on Iran that puts aside
the US's National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, but in the absence of any
tangible evidence to corroborate the allegations of an Iranian proliferation
drive, this is unlikely to happen. Any new US threat assessment regarding Iran
cannot be divorced from the recurrent statements of the International Atomic
Energy Agency (IAEA) that "it reiterates that it has no concrete proof that
there is or has been a nuclear weapons program in Iran".
On Friday, an IAEA statement indicated that the multilateral negotiations with
Iran regarding the IAEA-proposed "fuel-for-fuel" swap for Tehran's medical
nuclear reactor were "ongoing", despite Tehran's rejection of key terms of that
Tehran has offered a counter-proposal that calls for a staged approach whereby
in lieu of a (near) simultaneous delivery of enriched uranium for the Tehran
reactor, it would be willing to ship out 400 kilograms of its low-enriched
uranium, followed by a second such exchange if everything went smoothly.
Coinciding with the IAEA's announcement was a statement by Foreign Minister
Yang calling for dialogue and the "restarting" of negotiations over the Iran
nuclear issue. This more patient approach has been dismissed in some quarters
in the US as being imprudent.
To conclude, in the book Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11
this author wrote:
It is not China's veto power in the Security Council
over sanctions against Iran that matters, but that China's balanced and
perceived fair diplomacy could be an influence on Iran. The key to China's
diplomacy is to hold a firm line on non-proliferation while avoiding prejudging
Iran's nuclear intentions. China emphasizes Iran's right to develop peaceful
nuclear programs, while urging Iran to put its nuclear program under the watch
of the IAEA. China's position on a peaceful solution to Iran's quest for
nuclear power benefits all, instead of just protecting its oil supply, as
perceived by many. That is why China's approach is shared by some Muslim and
Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Jordan and Indonesia.
China has to think of the impact of its endorsement of, or failure to, block
economic sanctions against Iran. It also has to consider the impact of
sanctions - or the blocking of sanctions - on its other energy partners such as
Sudan, Venezuela and Angola. Siding with Western powers against Iran because of
concerns about its pursuit of nuclear technology could set a dangerous
precedent that could damage China's relations with southern developing
Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New
Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . For his Wikipedia entry,
click here. His
latest book, with Abbas Maleki,
Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing
, October 23, 2008) is now available.