Will China Stop Iran?

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Will China Stop Iran?

Beijing may be reluctant to intervene in the Iran crisis. But if an Israeli strike seems imminent, there are several things it can do to pressure Tehran.

This coming week, U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will hold a crucial meeting on how to confront the Iranian nuclear problem. It’s doubtful that the United States and Israel will see eye-to-eye on the potential use of force, but any friction between the two could have an upside: fearing an Israeli airstrike, China may be more willing to use its own influence to pressure Tehran.

The argument Netanyahu is likely to make is that, as Iran draws closer to a nuclear weapons capability, Israel’s window of opportunity to conduct a successful strike is closing. As a result, Israel will agree not to attack only if it obtains a firm guarantee that Washington will act militarily down the road, assuming that sanctions continue to prove ineffective. If the U.S. can’t supply such a pledge, “Israeli leaders may well choose to act while they still can.

With little appetite to become enmeshed in another Middle East conflict, the Obama administration is unlikely to do more than reiterate existing statements that, while force technically remains on the table as a last resort, it will continue to use a mix of diplomacy and sanctions to prod Tehran. Netanyahu may well leave more inclined to attack while time remains.

Yet this situation offers a potential diplomatic advantage. The reason is that China, wary of the chance of a hot conflict in the region, may consider using more of its clout vis-à-vis Tehran. China is the last remaining major power with significant interests in Iran’s oil sector, as well as a key supplier of gasoline to that country. Moreover, China, like the United States, is concerned about rising oil prices at home and thus has much to lose from any spike in gas costs that would result from a conflagration in the Middle East. Thus, China may do more on the diplomatic front simply to avoid its worst-case scenario: an Israeli attack.  

This possibility depends on how likely the Chinese leadership views an Israeli strike in the absence of tougher international diplomacy. It’s difficult to know what China’s top leaders believe at the moment, but attitudes among key Chinese strategists appear to be mixed. On one hand, strategists are aware of the difficulties of a successful Israeli strike, including the problem of hardened, diffuse targets, as well as the likelihood of Iranian retaliation. There’s also a conviction among many strategists that Washington will be able and willing to restrain its ally. 

Nevertheless, some analysts aren’t so sure. Tang Zhichao, a scholar at the influential Chinese Institute for Contemporary International Relations, writes that, “Israel, facing a grace threat and leery about the chances of negotiations as well as sanctions, could be tempted to use unilateral force to resolve the issue.” Hua Liming, a retired Chinese envoy to Tehran, argues that Israel’s “military strike preparations,” including talks with Riyadh about the use of Saudi airspace, seem to be “realistic.” Another scholar who I talked with in Beijing last month said that Israel was “very, very serious,” even if the U.S. might be able to prevent the former from acting.  

Some doubts about Israel’s intentions will of course remain. The point, though, is that a heightened risk, in and of itself, may be sufficient to persuade China’s leaders to think twice. President Hu Jintao, and his top foreign affairs deputy, Dai Bingguo, don’t have to be convinced that Israel will attack; rather, they only have to have serious doubts that it will back down. Given the stakes, avoiding even a modest risk of instability may be worth the costs Beijing would have to pay to do so.

Indeed, there’s evidence that Israeli interventions, in concert with diplomatic efforts by the United States and others, were effective in convincing Beijing to support the most recent round of U.N. Security Council sanctions on Iran, in June 2010. For months, China resisted international efforts to push through a new resolution, but yielded after a series of Israeli officials, including then-chief of military intelligence Amos Yadlin, provided details on Israel’s war plans and perceptions of the situation.

Thus, if Netanyahu makes the case that guarantees from the U.S. are insufficient, and that as a result, Israel has found itself even closer to an actual decision to strike, Beijing will likely pay attention.

What might China be asked to do? During Vice President Xi Jinping’s visit to the U.S. in February, a bipartisan group of retired senior U.S. officials wrote an open letter to Xi calling on China to consider several options. These include reducing purchases of Iranian crude, increasing bilateral diplomatic pressure, and more actively enforcing the four current U.N. Security Council resolutions on the Iranian nuclear issue. Beijing might also “make its investments contingent on Tehran’s willingness to cooperate with the international community on its nuclear program.

Of course, it’s uncertain that any steps China takes to convince Iran to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency, and with the international community at large, will be sufficient to dissuade Tel Aviv from taking action. But it’s a safe bet that if Beijing does nothing, the chances of a strike – and all the strife that would entail – may well be much worse.

Joel Wuthnow is a fellow at the China and the World Program at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University. He is completing a book manuscript on China's diplomacy in the U.N. Security Council.