When United States President Barack Obama came to office promising engagement with Iran, American observers recalled Richard Nixon’s 1972 trip to Beijing which opened the way to normalized relations with China.
In practice, “engagement” has meant two meetings in October, and Washington is no nearer to diplomatic relations with Iran. There is even a hollow ring to the Obama administration’s argument that it has encouraged Moscow and Beijing to back further United Nations sanctions over Iran’s atomic program. While last autumn’s cancelation of a US missile shield scheduled for eastern Europe has eased tension with Russia, Washington’s standing with China is falling. Notably, Beijing has not sent a senior representative to the leading powers’ discussions over Iran.
American analysts argue China’s Iran policy is based on economics, especially its thirst for Iranian oil and gas. Naturally, this is a factor. Visiting Hong Kong in January, Mohammad Nahavandian, head of Iran’s chamber of commerce, reported bilateral annual trade of $25 billion, up from $7 billion in 2004. But the Iran issue is just part of wider economic and political rivalries between Washington and Beijing. Obama’s decision to meet the Dalai Lama has alarmed China, which has long accused the exiled Tibetan leader of undermining its rule in Tibet. Further, Beijing sees Obama’s recent $6.3 billion arms sales to Taiwan — a self-ruled island over which China claims sovereignty — as a breach of a 1982 US-China agreement that such sales would “not exceed, either in qualitative or in quantitative terms” those following the thaw after Nixon’s visit.
China’s disagreement with the US over Iran focuses on its view, shared with other developing countries such as Brazil and South Africa, that international rules should apply consistently. At the Munich security conference in February, Yang Jiechi, China’s foreign minister, called for continued diplomacy between the P5+1 (the permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) and Tehran. Yang said the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty (NPT) gave Iran as a signatory “the right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy” — a stance at odds with US, European and Israeli officials who argue Iran should not enrich uranium.
“When we talk about equality and freedom of speech,” said Yang, “we are talking…not only on an individual basis, but also on the basis of countries and democratization of international relations. One country or a few countries definitely cannot decide the future of the world.” President Obama has evaded this argument. In his State of the Union address in January, he bracketed Iran with North Korea, which has atomic weapons and is not a signatory of the NPT.
Hillary Clinton has gone further. The secretary of state said in Doha last month that the US did not “want to be engaging while they’re building their bomb.”
Such outbursts offer no basis — in Chinese and other eyes — for Obama threatening Iran with “growing consequences” if it ignores its “obligations.” Obama is sending confusing signals to Tehran. It is not even clear if “engagement” is over or not, and it’s not only Beijing that’s perplexed. An end-of-December deadline for Iran to accept the P5+1 proposal to export most of its enriched uranium in return for nuclear fuel for medical use passed without incident. But Yukiya Amano, head of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency, said in January that dialogue was continuing. But the US has also announced the deployment of warships in the Persian Gulf and the installation of missiles in Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. Talk in Washington is of further sanctions. While the administration is skeptical over congressional proposals to bar from the US any companies supplying Iran with gasoline from the US, it has said it will seize assets of some affiliates of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and may go on to exclude any companies trading with IRGC entities from the US.
Proponents of sanctions justify these measures as much by the IRGC’s role in policing demonstrations since last June’s disputed presidential election as by its part in the nuclear program. But targeting the IRGC, whose constitutional mission is to defend the Islamic Republic, seems a way to convince the authorities in Tehran — or those in Beijing — that the US wants regime change rather than engagement.