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China May Lead Nuclear Inspections in Iran

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China May Lead Nuclear Inspections in Iran

Newsweek says Beijing has agreed to have Chinese nationals lead IAEA inspections of Iran’s nuclear sites.

China May Lead Nuclear Inspections in Iran
Credit: IAEA Imagebank

China is considering taking the lead on implementing more robust inspections of Iran’s nuclear program, a new report says.

An article in this week’s issue of Newsweek magazine reports on a track two meeting about Iran’s nuclear program that took place in France at the same time as the official P5+1-Iran negotiations were going on in Geneva last weekend.

According to the report, the participants at the meeting were retired military leaders from Israel, Iran and China, as well as elder statesmen from the U.S., Australia and France. The meeting—which was hosted by Jean-Christophe Iseux von Pfetten, the first foreigner to serve in the upper house of China’s parliament and an advisor to Chinese leaders—was aimed at opening up an important back channel between the parties to hammer out solutions to some of the thornier issues regarding Iran’s nuclear program.  

One such thorny issue is Iran allowing more intrusive International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections of its nuclear and suspected nuclear sites. An unnamed former Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) commander is quoted in the report as saying that Iran is hesitant to allow more intrusive inspections because of the Iraqi precedent.

“We saw the work of [weapons] inspectors in Iraq – they searched everywhere, including the President's Palace,” the IRGC commander said. “They found nothing but started bombing Iraq anyway. We cannot accept this.”

One possible solution to this conundrum is having the IAEA inspectors be from neutral countries rather than the U.S. and Europe. The IRGC commander says in the article that Iran would view American or allied inspectors gaining access to its nuclear sites as a “an unacceptable violation of Iran's sovereignty.” However, he also indicates that Iran would be more amenable to third party nationals acting as the inspectors.

The article says that China has agreed in principle to assign Chinese nationals as the lead inspectors in such a deal. The Chinese proposal was not an off-the-cuff remark. The article says that when Israeli and Palestinian leaders were in China at the same time earlier this year, “Chinese representatives” at a think tank that hosted talks between them said that China would be willing to play an active role in inspections on Iran’s nuclear program. However, Beijing reportedly insisted that the inspections continue to take place under the banner of the IAEA.

China is one of the five recognized nuclear weapons states in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). It has historically had a rocky relationship with the IAEA over its support to suspected nuclear proliferators like Pakistan, North Korea and Iran. However, in more recent years China has been lauded for doing more to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, although there continues to be concern over Beijing’s perceived lax enforcement of nuclear exports being sold by private companies in China.

In April of this year, at a preparatory meeting for the 2015 NPT review conference, Cheng Jingye, China’s permanent representative to the IAEA in Vienna made a passionate call for strengthening the IAEA and NPT regime.

“We should further consolidate and enhance the international nuclear non-proliferation regime, strengthen the universality, authority and effectiveness of the Treaty” Cheng said, according to an English transcript of the speech.

“"We should strengthen the safeguards function of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and promote the effective implementation and universal adherence of the comprehensive safeguards agreements and its additional protocols,” he added.

In the same speech, Cheng touched on Iran specifically, saying: “We hope that the P5+1 and Iran could, based on the mutual understanding achieved from the dialogue, follow the principle of step-by-step and reciprocity, and move to the same direction and cooperate sincerely, make more efforts for resolving the Iranian Nuclear issue through diplomatic means.”

China is a member of the P5+1 along with the U.S., UK, France, Russia and Germany. It has previously called upon Iran to work with the IAEA to address international concerns that its nuclear program is secretly aimed at acquiring nuclear weapons. China taking the lead on nucelar inspections in Iran would be consistent with Beijing's more active diplomacy in the Middle East.

The Director General of the IAEA, Yukiya Amano, visited Iran last Monday where he and Iran’s nuclear chief, Ali Akbar Salehi, inked an agreement in which Iran agreed to provide more information and access to IAEA inspectors at certain nuclear sites.

In the Joint Statement on a Framework for Cooperation, Iran said it will provide IAEA inspectors with relevant information and “managed access” to a uranium mine and the Arak heavy water reactor. The agreement also said this would be a “first step,” suggesting that the IAEA hoped it would lead to Iran allowing inspections of other sites inside Iran, most notably the Parchin military facility.

China praised the Iran-IAEA agreement, according to Iranian media outlets.