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The Beijing-Tehran-Washington Nuclear Triangle

Dec 12 , 2011

Iran has been hit with new Western sanctions that target Iran’s banks, oil and gas industry, and petrochemical industry. These sanctions followed the release of a November 8 report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which details alleged Iranian clandestine research on Iranian nuclear warheads and their means of delivery. Nonetheless, Russian and Chinese opposition blocked the IAEA from requesting that the UN Security Council impose more multinational sanctions on Iran. Western governments have had to resort to applying supplementary but piecemeal sanctions without UN approval.

A lot of asymmetries mark the China-Iran relationship. The PRC is an emerging superpower with aspirations of establishing regional hegemony in the Asia Pacific region. Iran aspires to such status, but lacks the human, economic, and military resources to achieve it (which might explain why Iran might want nuclear weapons to bolster its status). The PRC has the world’s most dynamic economy, while that of Iran is stagnant. China has no state religion, whereas the Iranian regime defines itself as an Islamic republic.

Although opposites might attract, these asymmetries place Beijing in a much stronger negotiating position, while prickly Iranians have always resented having to concede to even friendly great powers. Iranians have regularly rejected China’s demands that Tehran adopt a more flexible and transparent nuclear policy.

Yet, the Chinese government has consistently opposed threats to use military force against Iran’s nuclear program. PRC officials have been unenthusiastic about even less drastic punitive measures. Chinese diplomats, in partnership with their Russian colleagues, have often worked to weaken proposed sanctions, accepting only the minimum measures necessary to avert a possible U.S. or Israeli military attack on Iran.

The standard PRC line regarding Iran’s nuclear program, offered by Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi among others, is that, "China has consistently advocated safeguarding the international nuclear non-proliferation system. At the same time, China considers we should resolve the Iran nuclear issue through the channels of dialogue and negotiations." 

Chinese behavior regarding Iran is bounded. The PRC government clearly opposes the extreme outcomes of Iran’s obtaining nuclear weapons or the use of force by Israel or the United States to avert that outcome. Furthermore, Beijing wants to see a change in the behavior of the regime, but not regime change. Chinese officials oppose military strikes against Iran or harsh sanctions that could threaten the regime’s existence.

Excluding these extreme outcomes, China pursues policies that change according to the circumstances. Beijing adopts a harder line when confronted by greater U.S. or other Western pressure, when Iran seems to be making more progress toward nuclear weapons capacity, or when China risks isolation due to Moscow’s siding with the West’s harder line. Otherwise, China’s default position is to exploit the strategic and commercial opportunities created by tensions between Iran and the West while discouraging a military confrontation between either side. China will free ride when it can, but pay the small costs of joining with the other great powers in pressuring Iran when it must.

By itself, Iran is not a vital national interest for Beijing the way it is for many Western governments. Military ties dominated bilateral relations during the 1980s, but starting in the 1990s, when China’s rapid growth transformed it into an energy importer, the main PRC interest in Iran broadened to include oil. Like Sudan and Zimbabwe, Iran’s isolation from other countries made it a good target for PRC energy managers, who often seek energy in neglected or undervalued energy exporting countries whose isolation enhances China’s value as a potential commercial partner.

Iran, along with Saudi Arabia, has become China’s most important partner in the Middle East, but not an issue for which Beijing was prepared to go to war to defend. PRC policy makers have never placed Iran in the same category as such vital interests as Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, and perhaps the South China Sea.

Due to its bounded importance to China, PRC policy reflects the push and pull of other factors, which can include energy, economic, diplomatic, and nonproliferation considerations. In addition, Iran’s lesser importance than Taiwan, Tibet, or other vital interests means that PRC entities can adopt diverging approaches toward Iran. Chinese diplomats can seek to reassure Western governments about their support for preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons, PLA military strategists can fantasize of forming an anti-American alliance with Tehran that would give China maritime bases in the Persian Gulf, while Chinese firms can focus on making money.

Although Beijing does not completely free ride on Western nonproliferation efforts, the Chinese government aims to do just enough to keep the West pacified while limiting the sanctions they adopt to those that do not overly upset the Iranians or impede their pursuit of their primary goals of buying energy and developing profitable economic ties with Iran.

U.S. officials have sought to influence Beijing’s calculus by indicating that the PRC’s nonproliferation policies regarding Iran affected perceptions of whether China was a responsible stakeholder. They have also threatened to sanction Chinese firms to overcome European and Asian reluctance to adopt additional sanctions since their Chinese competitors would simply “backfill” for the departing foreign firms or win contracts for new opportunities by default.
The hope is that the sanctions will shift the cost-benefit analysis of potential Chinese investors in Iran, making them worry about their ability to implement their projects without access to sophisticated Western technology or repatriate their profits.

China overcame the latest nuclear crisis without major problems thanks to Moscow’s assuming the lead in blocking IAEA action and opposing the latest supplementary sanctions, which were adopted independently of the United Nations, Yet, China’s importance to the Iranian economy, especially its status as Iran’s main trading partner and primary supplier of dual-use technologies, has made Beijing, rather than Moscow, the main obstacle to increasing economic pressure on Tehran to change its nuclear policies. At some point, Washington may force China to choose between its economic ties with the United States and Iran—though the odds still are against it.

Richard Weitz is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute. His current research includes regional security developments relating to Europe, Eurasia, and East Asia as well as U.S. foreign, defense, homeland security, and WMD nonproliferation policies

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