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Foreign Policy

China and U.S.: Building on the Iran Agreement

Jul 31 , 2015

Chinese and U.S. nonproliferation experts agree that China-U.S. cooperation regarding Iran made a critical contribution toward achieving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), adopted by Iran and its P5+1 negotiating partners on July 14.

Wu Zurong, research fellow at the China Foundation for International Studies, stressed in his July 23 China-US Focus piece“the important, constructive role played by the five major countries, including China…in bringing the parties to the negotiation table… they all became indispensable factors to the success of the nuclear talks.”

In his July 28 commentary,Yang Jiemian, President Emeritus of Shanghai Institute of International Studies, related how the deal both reflected and strengthened China-U.S. cooperation in the Middle East. For example, he noted that Russian-U.S. tensions allowed Beijing to play a prominent role in sustaining great power cooperation over the Iran issue.

Earlier this month, moreover, Samantha Power, U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, also said that the Iran experience showed the importance of great power cooperation for achieving progress on nonproliferation issues.

Although the recent China-U.S. progress regarding Iran is welcome, both governments still have important joint tasks to perform to ensure effective implementation of the JCPOA. For example, they must execute the Iranian nuclear agreement in a mutually reinforcing manner to prevent Tehran from exploiting their differences. Above all, China and the United States must prevent any Iranian cheating or backsliding.


Whatever its faults, the JCPOA’s failure would be worse. The day after the July 14 nuclear deal, The People’s Daily said the successful Iranian agreement “show[ed] that dialogue and negotiation were the only correct and effective path to appropriately resolve the Iran nuclear issue, and that certain countries threatening to use force on Iran and imposing unilateral sanctions are not acceptable.” But the JCPOA’s failure could discredit diplomacy, sanctions, and other non-military nonproliferation instruments.

An immediate challenge for Beijing and Washington will be ensuring that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has sufficient resources and great power backing to enforce the agreement. The Agency first needs to complete its inspection of Iran’s nuclear program to establish a baseline for future monitoring. It must then widen its mission to detect any undeclared nuclear activities in Iran.

The country’s large size, extensive nuclear activities, and proven skill at sophisticated concealment and sanctions circumvention will present a major challenge for IAEA monitoring of its nuclear program, despite Iran’s provisional adoption of the Additional Protocol and pledge to allow IAEA monitoring of its entire nuclear supply chain—from mining and milling, to conversion and enrichment, to nuclear reactor operations and spent fuel storage. Chinese and U.S. cooperation could prove critical for achieving a successful IAEA mission.

In this regard, China and the United States must cooperate with other countries and with international nonproliferation bodies to ensure that Iranian procurement remains within legal channels. Some calculations indicate that a large share of Iran’s recent ballistic missile and nuclear technology imports has passed through Chinese ports.

Although the IAEA will likely have access to Western intelligence and detection technologies, the Agency would benefit from Chinese data on Iranian dual-use procurements. Beijing and Washington also need to consider whether it makes sense to focus controls and enforcement on a limited set of highly proliferation sensitive technologies even though Iran has shown skill at using or upgrading low-grade dual-use components for its nuclear program.

Wu writes that, “Against the backdrop that companies from the United States and across the world have shown strong willingness in doing business with Iran, sanctions probably will never work.” However, China and the United States must coordinate how they relax the sanctions to avoid rewarding Tehran too much or too soon and thereby reducing Iran’s incentive to uphold the deal.

That said, China is in much better position than the United States to offer Iran the financial and other benefits that will give Tehran an incentive for compliance. For example, Beijing might want to encourage Iran to join the Central Asian Nuclear Free Zone or accept other nonproliferation obligations in return for full membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

Wu observers that, “The signing of the Iranian nuclear agreement sets a precedent for the international community to solve disputes through political and diplomatic channels.” In this regard, Chinese officials have made clear that they are eager to resume the Six-Party Talks seeking North Korea’s denuclearization.

Despite understandable aspirations, it is by no means clear what lessons the Iran negotiations offer for North Korea’s more determined nuclear weapons aspirations. Pyongyang has an even worse record than Iran in meeting its nonproliferation obligations. Unlike Iran, North Korea has already tested several nuclear explosive devices and has produced both weapons-grade uranium and plutonium.

Pyongyang has also achieved some success at dividing the great powers and regularly manipulates Moscow and Beijing to counter the United States and its allies. U.S. tensions with China have likely made Pyongyang bolder in resisting meeting its nuclear disarmament obligations. This is something Presidents Xi and Obama need to address at their upcoming summit.

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