Op-Ed Contributors

Sanctions on Iran, dilemma for China

By Chu Zhaogen (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-10-26 07:59
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The United States has been forcing other countries to comply with the United Nations sanctions against Iran, and it has been blaming Chinese companies for breaking the embargoes on Iran.

China has been facing a dilemma over the sanctions imposed on Iran. On one hand, China has important business and strategic interests with Iran. On the other, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, it has to act as a responsible power to maintain world peace and security.

It is clear that China's relations with Iran do not depend only on the two countries. They are determined by China-US and China-European Union (EU) relations as well. Thus Sino-Iranian relations pose a great challenge to China's diplomacy - a tricky diplomatic battle which, if not handled properly, could harm China's core interests.

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Since China replaced the EU as the largest trading partner of Iran last year, it is likely that Iran will become the biggest foreign construction and project market for Chinese companies. As the second largest oil producer among the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and the fourth largest oil exporting country in the world, Iran is also China's third largest source of petroleum, accounting for 11 percent of its total imports.

Moreover, since Iran has rich and inexpensive oil and gas resources that are of great importance to China, Beijing has to maintain friendly cooperation with Teheran to minimize its energy security worries.

Therefore, China was reluctant to impose new sanctions on Iran, even though the West had been demanding them ever since Teheran announced on Feb 8 that it would enrich its on-hand uranium to 20 percent.

After assuming office, US President Barack Obama tried to seek a dialogue with Iran, but his year-long diplomatic efforts were in vain. That prompted Obama to hold the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington on April 12. In such circumstances, any disagreement between China and the US would run counter to the aim of establishing full-scale cooperative Sino-US partnership and taking joint steps to confront global challenges.

Now that China, according to media reports, has become the world's second largest economy, it is impossible to solve a global problem without China's participation. But as a permanent member of the UN Security Council with veto power, China is not expected to fight only for its own interests. Its actions should be aimed at maintaining a stable international security order.

These new challenges have forced China to rethink its diplomacy. So now, it has adopted a "double-track strategy" of diplomatic efforts and sanctions to resolve international crises.

Apart from safeguarding the international nuclear non-proliferation regime and supporting further sanctions against Iran, China has also emphasized that the door for diplomatic mediation is still open.

Besides, because of China's efforts, the clause of "disapproval of the use or threat of force" against Iran was written into the sanction draft resolution submitted to the UN Security Council, which avoided imposing sanctions against Teheran's energy industry, its biggest economic mainstay.

The result: Sino-Iranian energy cooperation does not violate the promise made by China of imposing sanctions. This has helped China, as a responsible world power, to maintain world peace and security as well as continue to cooperate with Iran on its energy sector because the sanctions are not against the Iranian people but to prevent Teheran from developing nuclear weapons.

A look at history would tell us that a country's people rather than its government suffers from sanctions. If pressed too hard, Iran may tend to beef up its security by developing nuclear weapons through means fair or foul, which would be more harmful to international peace.

China's double-track strategy has guaranteed the maintenance of Sino-Iranian relations and the effectiveness of the UN sanctions against Iran. That Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited China on June 11, two days after the sanctions were imposed on his country, proves he understood the position Beijing was in over the international security situation.

Iran told the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on July 26 that it was willing to restart unconditional nuclear talks. Later, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said Iran was ready for negotiations on nuclear issues with the international community, proving further that China' diplomatic outlook and measures had been effective.

China has consistently opposed (and will oppose) nuclear proliferation. But it also opposes any attempt to take advantage of the sanctions to attack or even weaken Iran.

The accuracy and reliability of intelligence reports on whether Iran is developing nuclear weapons will continue to test the international community. The intelligence failure that led to the Iraq War in 2003, for example, has caused US citizens a lot. If a similar mistake were to be repeated, it would spell disaster for not only the Iranian people, but also for US nationals.

The author, based in Zhejiang province, is a scholar of international studies.