China has worked hard behind the scenes to reduce tensions over Iran’s nuclear program. But as political pressure grows in the U.S. for action, will it have been for nothing?
Amidst recurrent warnings by Israeli politicians that the moment for a military strike against Iran is drawing closer, the United States, the European Union and pro-Western Arab regimes are apparently contemplating full economic warfare against Tehran. They seem determined to intensify existing sanctions by cutting off the Iranian central bank, the last channel for handling Iran’s oil exports, from the global financial system.
This is tantamount to an oil embargo, one that would not only affect EU member states allied with the United States, but also leading Asian importers of Iranian oil, including China, India and Japan. With this in mind, a series of multilateral meetings have been taking place aimed at designing a strategy that can minimize the turmoil that this ultimate step could result in, including price hikes and a disorderly scramble for alternative suppliers.
While admitting that the accumulated sanctions are causing pain, Iran has, as expected, responded to the latest pressure and threats with defiance. The governor of Iran’s central bank, Mahmoud Bahmani, told the media that Iran must act as if it were “under siege.” China and Russia, for their part, are strongly opposed to the renewed Western campaign of pressure and sanctions, and are advocating dialogue and negotiations to calm the crisis.
The first U.S. move in the current round of escalation was the claim in mid-October that an Iranian covert operation to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States had been uncovered. The plot was met with scepticism even in some circles in Saudi Arabia, where it was suggested that the United States was exaggerating the Iranian menace to pressure the Saudis to buy more U.S. weapons. The United States sponsored a U.N. General Assembly resolution condemning Iran for the alleged plot. However, China abstained “for lack of evidence, the absence of a truly serious investigation, rush to judgment and politicization of the issue.”
The next step was the publication in November of a new report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on Iran’s “progress” toward a nuclear device, including computer modelling of a nuclear warhead, testing explosives in a large metal chamber and studying how to arm a Shahab 3 medium-range missile with an atomic warhead.
However, the report was considered too weak by Russia and China to justify more sanctions. Other analysts agreed that the report lacked a “smoking gun” proving conclusively that Iran is on the verge of making a nuclear weapon. The IAEA board therefore adopted only a watered down resolution, which Iran ignored. China and Russia, meanwhile, used their weight at the U.N. Security Council to block any possibility of the sanctions being more broadly imposed through a U.N. resolution.
The third blow delivered to Iran was a major explosion in the middle of last month at an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) missile facility, in which a high-ranking Iranian missile specialist, Gen. Hassan Moghaddam, and other military personnel were killed. At the same time, the son of a former commander of the IRGC was reportedly found dead in Dubai, raising suspicions in Iran that other political assassinations had been carried out by Israeli agents. After all, previous targets in Tehran attributed to the Mossad and/or C.I.A. have included Iranian nuclear scientists.
Add up the various incidents, bombings, assassinations, sabotage of centrifuges by computer virus and the recent downing of a U.S. drone on a spying mission and it seems clear that the United States and Israel have been waging a secretive, low-intensity war against Iran for some time. But are this clandestine campaign and the threat of an all-out oil embargo merely the prelude to the much-anticipated military strikes?
Iranian analysts no longer disguise their concern that the situation is deteriorating, and there’s every expectation in Tehran of even more menacing developments. Such concerns appear to have manifested themselves in a tough response that has included the storming of the British Embassy by what are believed to be elements of the basiji, the militia of the Revolutionary Guards. The siege is said to have been fomented by elite hardliners, including Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani, although the incident was condemned by the Foreign Ministry.
So where does China fit into all of this? Beijing has since the first wave of U.N. sanctions in 2006 been cooperative with the West, but has consistently opposed additional Western sanctions, which it considers violations of international law. It has kept its cool and reiterated its old demands that further sanctions and even military action won’t solve the problem, but will instead only complicate the situation and threaten regional stability.
China has also indignantly rejected Western demands to be more cooperative in isolating Iran. The strongly nationalist English language Global Times, for example, warned this month that the “retaliatory revenge from the West,” ignited by the storming of the British Embassy in Tehran, was “likely to plunge Iran into a bottomless abyss of war.”
The Global Times also took aim at the latest U. S. Senate bill vowing to penalize all foreign financial institutions that do business with Iran’s central bank. While condemning the violence at the British Embassy, the semi-official paper wondered whether this would justify the full-scale subversion of Iran by the West. “China has no obligation to mess up the situation, especially as the EU and the U.S. try to take the opportunity to overthrow Iran for their own interests,” the editorial continued. It added disapprovingly that despite the West suffering an economic crisis, its efforts to overthrow non-western governments for political and military interests remain undiminished. China and Russia should, it said, remain on high alert and adopt countermeasures.
A week later, the Chinese language edition of the paper upped the ante, arguing that Iran is vitally important to the survival of China and Russia, and that Tehran can say “no” to the United States and help block American domination of the Middle East.
Photo Credit: Bernd.Brincken