Op-Ed Contributors

Iran offers US a learning experience

By Hua Liming (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-03-02 07:47
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The United States has been mobilizing its massive foreign influence to impose new sanctions on Iran. Before submitting the list of the new sanctions to the United Nations Security Council for a vote, it is trying to convince the international community that only sanctions can make Teheran change or scrap its nuclear program.

But can new sanctions really resolve the Iranian nuclear issue? For the answer we have to turn to history.

Given the non-transparent nature of Iran's nuclear program, it is understandable that the international community is suspicious of its intentions. After Iran's nuclear program came to light in 2003, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) passed a resolution asking Teheran to make its nuclear program transparent and allow surprise inspections of its installations.

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Thanks to the mediation of the EU-3 (Britain, France and Germany) Iran signed the Additional Protocol of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) on Dec 18, 2003 and promised to allow IAEA to conduct surprise checks on its nuclear facilities. After that, Iran reached the Paris Agreement with the EU-3 and agreed to suspend all uranium enrichment.

Iran offers US a learning experience

In March 2004, Iran submitted its program to limit uranium enrichment activities to the EU-3 after the expiry of the previous suspension period. But the George W. Bush administration rejected it outright, forcing the Iranian nuclear issue to take a turn for the worse. Iran restarted its uranium conversion facilities in Isfahan in August 2005 and resumed uranium enrichment six months later.

The result: the international community missed a chance to settle the Iranian nuclear issue peacefully. The political development in Iran after 2005 contributed to the change in its stance from one of compromise to hard line, with the rising pressure from the US playing the role of a catalyst.

First, the US snubbed the Iranian moderates, represented by Seyed Mohammad Khatami, even though they were willing to compromise, forcing them to withdraw from the country's politics. This led to the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a hardliner with a strong anti-US stance, as Iran's president, who immediately resumed the country's uranium enrichment program. Second, America's rigid stance helped raise nationalist sentiments in Iran and turned its nuclear program into an issue of national pride for Iranians. As a result, Iran has not been left with enough room to strike a compromise today, even if want to.

From December 2006 to March 2008, the UN Security Council passed Resolutions 1737, 1747 and 1803, imposing varying degrees of sanctions on Iran. It was during this period that the country's nuclear technology and ability to produce enriched uranium improved substantially. So the US and other Western countries criticize Iran's hard-line position and exclaim that "Iran's nuclear clock is ticking toward midnight" because they forget to ask themselves how much they are responsible for the current state of affairs.

In order to crush Iran, Bush accused it of being part of "the axis of evil" and imposed sanctions on it. His successor Barack Obama, too, has raised the stick of sanctions against Iran after announcing "unconditional engagement with Iran" and "recognizing" its right to peaceful use of nuclear energy during the early days of his presidency. This shows the only policy the US has to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue is sanctions and use of force.

Even the former hawkish US national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski has said: "The United States has to be realistic since the clock cannot be turned back: The Iranians have the capability to enrich uranium - and they are not going to give it up It would not be conducive to serious negotiations if the United States were to persist in publicly labeling Iran as a terrorist state - as a state that is not to be trusted - as a state against which sanctions or even a military option should be prepared."

A recent reminder of labeling Iran a terrorist state and the futility of sanctions comes from Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. In a recent article, he says: "We cannot be sure what effect sanctions will have on the regime's stability or decision making, and the history of economic sanctions shows that they do not produce significant policy changes (and certainly not quickly) in areas that governments judge to involve their vital national interests."

But now, US-led sanctions on Iran seem imminent. That Washington knows full well how ineffective sanctions are still wants to impose them on Iran indicates the helplessness of the Obama administration. This helplessness could ultimately make the US to use force or give Israel the go-ahead to launch a military attack against Iran.

This is exactly what China does not want to see. That's why it suggests that as long as Iran keeps its doors open to negotiations, the international community should not impose sanctions on it.

Peace in the Middle East and the world beyond is of primary importance to China. True, it has huge economic interests in Iran. But they are not the only reasons why China wants the Iranian nuclear issue to be resolved peacefully.

China has been at the receiving end of many sanctions. In fact, it still faces the West's arms embargo. The US and other Western countries have imposed sanctions on nations they considered "hostile". They have used sanctions as a potent weapon against developing countries even after the end of the Cold War. But the international community, especially the developing countries, has serious doubts about the necessity and effectiveness of sanctions.

Some may ask whether China feels "isolated" for its prudent stance on sanctions against Iran. Though China may be a minority in the 5+1 group (five permanent UN Security Council members and Germany), it enjoys the support of most of the developing countries.

And since China's efforts are aimed at establishing world peace, it can never be isolated from the international community.

The author was China's ambassador to Iran from 1991 to 1995.

(China Daily 03/02/2010 page9)