Features | Security | Central Asia

China’s Frustrated Iran Diplomacy

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?

By Willem van Kemenade for

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.  

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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.  

Although China accepts that there has never been conclusive evidence that Iran is engaged in a coordinated program of developing nuclear weapons, it has been critical of Tehran’s public diplomacy and berates it for not doing more to convince the international community of the peaceful intent of its purported civilian nuclear program. Still, many U.S. policymakers suspect China is playing a dual game in Iran, believing that the Chinese may well have concluded that a nuclear Iran is in keeping with China’s geostrategic interests.  

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But the suspicion cuts both ways. Some Chinese analysts are for their part skeptical whether what they see as a U.S. obsession with the Iran nuclear issue is genuine, not least because Washington has helped keep Israel’s nuclear arsenal a (very open) secret since 1969. They believe, therefore, that the real issue isn’t the nuclear program, but regime change.    

Despite this skepticism, China doesn’t see confrontation with the United States as in its interests, and therefore told its state oil majors earlier this year to stop further expansion in Iran so as not to jeopardize their investment prospects with the United States.  

In addition, China’s non-state telecom giant Huawei Technologies announced this month that it would voluntarily restrict its expansion in Iran due to the “increasingly complex situation there.” The real reason, though, is almost certainly that Huawei was facing scrutiny in the United States over its supply of mobile network technology to Tehran to track down dissidents.  

China’s willingness to scale down its interests in Iran was likely meant as a quid pro quo in exchange for the lowering of the U.S. profile in the South China Sea. But as the past few months have demonstrated, the Obama administration is actually keen for the United States to reassert itself in the Asia-Pacific after the hibernation of the Bush years.  

This perceived lack of good faith, and the recent ratetching up of tensions, has frustrated Beijing, which believes that it has taken a number of actions to help calm the situation. This frustration is manifesting itself in Chinese media coverage, which has increasingly been taking the Anglo-American axis to task over efforts to impose crippling sanctions, a dirty war inside Iran, and possible moves towards open military action. Yet although they implore China and Russia to block such moves, they are unclear on how this can be done.  

It is, of course, difficult to imagine that President Obama would yield to the growing clamour of toxic U.S. election politics to launch another war. But should Israel insist on embarking on a military adventure, Chinese policymakers would be left with few options except to stress forceful diplomacy. This should include not only working with Russia at the United Nations, but involving other key Asia players such as Japan and India, both of whom are major importers of Iranian oil and gas. 

Iran aside, there’s perhaps no country that hopes more than China that this doesn’t become necessary.

Willem van Kemenade is a freelance writer and author of ’China, Hong Kong, Taiwan Inc., The Dynamics of a New Empire.'