February 05, 2010

Iran caught up in China-US spat


By Kaveh L Afrasiabi

Just days after United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton used the occasion of a speech in Paris to lecture China on its national security interests and warned Beijing of "economic insecurity and diplomatic isolation" if it did not sign onto new sanctions against Iran, China hit back.

On Saturday, Beijing escalated its rhetoric against US arms sales to Taiwan, which it views as part of its territory, by suspending all military exchanges with the US, summoning the American

ambassador to Beijing and using Clinton's own language about "long-term implications".

Clinton had warned China it would come under a "lot of pressure" to recognize the threat from Iran's nuclear program and to join international calls for further sanctions. She said pressure would come as Washington and other powers "move away from the engagement track, which has not produced the results that some had hoped for, and move towards the pressure and sanctions track" to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions, which Tehran insists are for peaceful purposes.

Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said of the US's US$6.4 billion arms package for Taiwan that Washington should "truly respect China's core interests and major concerns, and immediately rescind the mistaken decision to sell arms to Taiwan, and stop selling arms to Taiwan to avoid damaging broader China-US relations".

The official Xinhua news agency followed this up with hints that the sales could damage diplomacy involving the US's efforts to get China's backing in its nuclear stand-offs with Iran and North Korea. It said the sales "will cause seriously negative effects on China-US exchanges and cooperation in important areas, and ultimately will lead to consequences that neither side wishes to see".

A commentary in the official China Daily chimed in, "From now on, the US shall not expect cooperation from China on a wide range of major regional and international issues. If you don't care about our interests, why should we care about yours?"

Among the sales to Taiwan, still subject to congressional review, would be Black Hawk helicopters built by Sikorsky Aircraft, a unit of United Technologies; Lockheed Martin-built and Raytheon co-integrated Patriot missile defenses and Harpoon land and sea attack missiles built by Boeing.

The row with China comes at a bad time for the US in terms of Iran. Washington needs all the support it can get in the United Nations Security Council if it is to get new sanctions on Iran approved; an aggrieved China could prevent this from happening and force the US further down the road of imposing a further round of unilateral sanctions, something that will deepen the divide between Tehran and Washington.

Richard Haass, the president of the US Council on Foreign Relations and traditionally a foreign policy "realist", recently said that "Iran will prove to be the most compelling foreign policy issue of 2010". He also recently wrote in a Newsweek article titled "Enough is enough" that "Iran may be closer to profound political change than at any time since the revolution that ousted the shah 30 years ago", and "the United States, European governments and others should shift their Iran policy towards increasing the prospects for [that] change". (See Sanctions, regime change take center stage Asia Times Online, January 29,2010.)

Haass' endorsement of the "regime change" option, long promoted by neo-conservatives and hawks, misses the point that Iran has weathered the storm following last June's disputed presidential elections that resulted in months of street protests and unrest. Tehran has also reasserted itself in regional diplomacy by, among other things, refusing to attend last week's international conference on Afghanistan in London, which was accused by Tehran of meddling in Iran's internal affairs.

The fixation with the "Iran threat" also overlooks the stalled Middle East peace process and the dangers ahead of another flare-up between Israel and the Arabs as a result of Washington's inability to exert pressure on Israel.

Clinton has urged China to follow in the footsteps of the US and its allies on Iran even though there are strong voices of opposition within the US to the confrontational path being charted in the US Congress in the form of an Iran sanctions act. (See Obama losing control of Iran policy, Asia Times Online, February 1, 2010)

Two versions of this act have been adopted, one by the House of Representative and one by the US Senate, and the differences between them need to be hammered out before it can be fully legislated and sent to the Oval Office for President Barack Obama's endorsement.

In a stinging rebuke of this pending legislation, the US Chamber of Commerce has sent a letter to the White House, warning, "The proposed sanctions would incite economic, diplomatic and legal conflicts with US allies and could frustrate joint action against Iran."

Last December, in a letter to US Senator John Kerry, a top US State Department official, James Steinberg, used the same argument to advise the senate of the probable unwanted consequences of unilateral sanctions on the US's allies, such as the Europeans, who have extensive trade relations with Iran.

Although the letter did not mention any country by name, it is abundantly clear that China, which enjoyed total trade of about $27 billion with Iran in 2009, tops the list. The US Congress opted to ignore the State Department's input and has rushed ahead with the sanctions bill. The bill is ostensibly meant to "empower" the president, but in reality it pushes Obama's engagement approach more towards "the pressure and sanctions track", to paraphrase Clinton in her Paris speech.

Congress is effectively getting ahead of the White House on an important foreign policy issue that, as is now happening with respect to China, bristles with severe collateral damage.

It should not be forgotten that despite all the talk of "Iran's nuclear threat" by US officials and media pundits, the US intelligence community has (so far) withstood increasing pressure to be cowered into revising its December 2007 finding that Iran's nuclear program has been peaceful since 2003. Some media may be awash with stories of a new intelligence report on Iran that puts aside the US's National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, but in the absence of any tangible evidence to corroborate the allegations of an Iranian proliferation drive, this is unlikely to happen. Any new US threat assessment regarding Iran cannot be divorced from the recurrent statements of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that "it reiterates that it has no concrete proof that there is or has been a nuclear weapons program in Iran".

On Friday, an IAEA statement indicated that the multilateral negotiations with Iran regarding the IAEA-proposed "fuel-for-fuel" swap for Tehran's medical nuclear reactor were "ongoing", despite Tehran's rejection of key terms of that proposal.

Tehran has offered a counter-proposal that calls for a staged approach whereby in lieu of a (near) simultaneous delivery of enriched uranium for the Tehran reactor, it would be willing to ship out 400 kilograms of its low-enriched uranium, followed by a second such exchange if everything went smoothly.

Coinciding with the IAEA's announcement was a statement by Foreign Minister Yang calling for dialogue and the "restarting" of negotiations over the Iran nuclear issue. This more patient approach has been dismissed in some quarters in the US as being imprudent.

To conclude, in the book Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 this author wrote:
It is not China's veto power in the Security Council over sanctions against Iran that matters, but that China's balanced and perceived fair diplomacy could be an influence on Iran. The key to China's diplomacy is to hold a firm line on non-proliferation while avoiding prejudging Iran's nuclear intentions. China emphasizes Iran's right to develop peaceful nuclear programs, while urging Iran to put its nuclear program under the watch of the IAEA. China's position on a peaceful solution to Iran's quest for nuclear power benefits all, instead of just protecting its oil supply, as perceived by many. That is why China's approach is shared by some Muslim and Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Jordan and Indonesia.

China has to think of the impact of its endorsement of, or failure to, block economic sanctions against Iran. It also has to consider the impact of sanctions - or the blocking of sanctions - on its other energy partners such as Sudan, Venezuela and Angola. Siding with Western powers against Iran because of concerns about its pursuit of nuclear technology could set a dangerous precedent that could damage China's relations with southern developing countries.

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . For his Wikipedia entry, click here. His latest book, with Abbas Maleki, Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing , October 23, 2008) is now available.

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