Why China Is Right Not to Yield to Pressure on Iran

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Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad meets He Guoqiang (L), a member of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China, in Tehran July 16, 2011. (Photo: Raheb Homavandi / Reuters)

Following the dissemination of the IAEA’s latest report on Iran’s nuclear program, we’ve now entered the predictable phase of hand-waving uproar. Short of a genuine smoking gun, the IAEA report has still emboldened those who seek tough action on Tehran. Days of war talk in Israel have padded calls in the West for a far tougher regime of sanctions on the Islamic Republic and now may prove an awkward sticking point in the U.S. presidential campaign.

Yet it’s clear to all that sanctions at the U.N. Security Council won’t fly — because, on one level, there isn’t that much more to sanction and it’s highly unlikely that Russia and China, veto-wielding members, will let even tighter measures pass. Both countries value their ties with Tehran. That’s a reality many D.C. hawks and politicians, particularly those convinced of Iran’s fundamental threat, find hard to stomach.

In today’s New York Times, Ilan Berman, vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington D.C., suggests that the U.S. should use the new findings to put genuine pressure on China. He writes:

Over time, Chinese leaders have become convinced that Washington prioritizes bilateral trade with Beijing over security concerns about Iran, and that it therefore won’t enact serious penalties for China’s dealings with Iran. This has allowed Chinese officials to pay lip service to international efforts to rein in Iran’s nuclear program while quietly playing a key role in nurturing Tehran’s nuclear quest. The result is clear: when it comes to Iran, China today isn’t part of the solution; it’s part of the problem…

Washington, worried about potentially destabilizing economic effects, has historically shied away from putting pressure on Beijing over its ties to Iran. But if the Obama administration is serious about halting Iran’s nuclear program, it must do so by sanctioning companies like the China National Offshore Oil Corporation, or Cnooc, which has been developing Iran’s mammoth North Pars natural gas field since 2006, and PetroChina (which supervises the import of some three million tons of liquefied natural gas annually from Iran). Both are publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange and therefore subject to penalties under existing law.

There are a number of impractical points here. First, sanctioning globally influential Chinese state companies would prove a highly provocative act, one barely considered by the far more hawkish Bush Administration. To expect the White House to walk such a confrontational line — especially as much of the Western world looks imploringly to Beijing, cap in hand — is absurd.

Second, even if Iran is on its way toward an operational nuclear weapons program, it’s still unclear why the simple fact of these capabilities ought to engender such unique moral outrage across the international community. No one in Washington is threatening diplomatic brinkmanship with China over its support of North Korea, a pariah state that’s arguably far more unpredictable, threatening to its neighbors and advanced in its nuclear weapon capabilities than Iran.

Lastly, as my colleague Tony Karon points out, the stakes are too high for all invested in this oil-rich region for any strategist (short of some in Israel and Washington) to really want a game-changing conflagration to emerge. China and India, a non-permanent member of the current Security Council, depend considerably on Iranian oil and would be foolish to upset such a relationship. Perhaps it’s not they — and their adherence to their own “Westphalian” national interests — that are the problem, but the bellicosity of some Americans and Israelis worked up by a threat that is still, ultimately, phantasmal.