Press event last Friday about US and Israeli efforts to get China on board for heavy UN sanctions on Iran over its alleged nuclear programme – something that has “no chance” of happening, according to a Dutch China expert and the International Crisis Group.
China may agree to sanctions – but not before it has watered them down as far as possible because it doesn’t see Iran as a threat and wants to protect its own trade with the Islamic Republic.
“The draconian sanctions proposed by western powers have no chance,” said Willem van Kemenade, a visiting senior fellow at the Clingendael Institute of International Relations in the Netherlands, who began reporting from China while still a high school student and travelled to Iran last year.
An Israeli delegation to Beijing met with Chinese officials last week to try to persuade them that they should agree to heavy sanctions, which American and French politicians have declared should be “crippling” and “massive” in nature, while the US has asked Saudi Arabia to supply more oil to China to reduce its reliance on Iran. In an indignant editorial, China Daily said the manouevring was a “trap” for China.
But China is unconvinced Tehran has the ability to develop nuclear weapons in the short term and does not share the West’s sense of urgency on the matter, according to a Crisis briefing paper.
Behind the scenes, western powers are also less concerned about Iran’s nuclear programme thanks to intelligence which suggests the technology Iran is using is old, Van Kemenade claimed.
“The public consensus is for maximum pressure on Iran but behind the scenes people are saying ‘well, we have time’,” he said.
China is also concerned that sanctions targeting Iran’s Republican Guard, an elite military force charged with protecting the regime, will affect trade because the Republican Guard’s myriad business interests pervade the Iranian economy.
“China will exact all the proof that it can from the US of Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons programme and will also examine carefully which Republican Guard businesses will be affected by sanctions,” said Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, Crisis’s north east Asia project director.
“Beijing will really go down into the detail of sanctions against the Republican Guard, which really comprise the core of the sanctions being proposed.”
More broadly, China sees strong bilateral relations with Iran as helping to counter US dominance in the Middle East and the two countries share resentment of what they see as western interference in their domestic politics, according to Crisis. China also wants access to the Indian Ocean and the Gulf. It is helping to build a port at Gwadar in Pakistan, but Pakistan’s instability means access through the country is not guaranteed, van Kemenade said. Iran by contrast is “inherently” a more stable country, he said. Finally, China does not want to fall out with the Muslim world over the administration of its Xinjiang Province, which last year saw deadly riots LINK between ethnic Muslim Uighurs and Han Chinese.
However, China would prefer Iran to “be more reasonable” in its discourse to the rest of the world and thus make it less embarrassing for China to support it, van Kemenade said.
Links between Iran and China go back more than a thousand years to the old Silk Road trading route. China become the main beneficiary of the freeze in relations between Iran and the US and other western countries following the US embassy hostage crisis, van Kemenade said, with Chinese firms helping with reconstruction after the devastation of the Iran-Iraq war and helping the Islamic Republic develop nuclear capacity until 1997, when tensions with the US, notably over Taiwan, persuaded China that its relationship with the US was more important for its development.
There is also evidence that, despite their leaders’ rhetoric, some European countries are not that keen on sanctions, according to this WSJ article, which says the German government is asking German companies while simultaneously setting up the German-Emirati Joint Council for Industry & Commerce in Dubai less than a year ago with the aim of ensuring German companies still have access to the Islamic Republic via the emirate, described by van Kemenade as “Iran’s Hong Kong”.
Some analysts say Dubai may have to give up its links to Iran as part of the price for the tens of billions of dollars it received from Abu Dhabi to help it overcome its financial difficulties. While Dubai has traded with Iran for centuries, Abu Dhabi Emiratis had very little contact with the outside world until oil was discovered in the first half of the last century.
For the US meanwhile, sanctions are not just aimed at Iranian nuclear ambitions but are part of an overall effort to topple the regime in Tehran, van Kemenade said.
“The US has been pushing for regime change for the past 30 years. The nuclear issue is just one step towards regime change,” he said.
But a change in Iran’s government would not necessarily diminish Iran’s alleged appetite for nuclear weapons capability, he added.
With American troops in conflict zones in Iraq to its west and Afghanistan to its east, an unstable and nuclear-armed Pakistan also on its borders, US naval vessels stationed in Bahrain in the Gulf, US bombers on the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean and nuclear-armed Israel on the horizon, Iran has a lot to think about.
“The same strategic concerns would definitely remain,” he said. “Young people in Iran never fail to mention Israel’s nuclear arsenal. The US has shielded Israel from international inspection and has never raised the issue of Israel signing the Non Proliferation Treaty.”
China also sees evidence of a double standard in the US allowing India, which is not a signatory to the NPT and has nuclear weapons, to conduct nuclear tests, Crisis said in its briefing paper.