Obama's plan for Iran and Chinese resistance

Iran's fate rests on US relations with an emerging Chinese-Russian axis
Arash Falasiri
27 April 2010

Despite the fact that the United States has since last year attempted to reach an agreement with both Russia and China to impose the fourth set of UN sanctions on Iran, these negotiations are still ongoing. While there is a huge expectation from the western members in the Security Council to announce new sanctions in April or May, there are some signs from non-western members indicating that China, specifically, is not still sure about its final decision.

Although Russia and China have recently held shared views on Iran, it seems that in the case of the forth sanction, the United States has been successful in provoking disagreement between them in relation to the issue. After more than six months of attempts, the Russian government’s rhetoric has recently shifted slightly. Early this month, during his last visit with Barak Obama in Prague, the Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, sent a clear message to Iran that there is no room to accept an Iranian state with nuclear weapon. Immediately after Medvedev delivered that message, Russia aligned itself more closely and showed more sympathy with western countries. The abandonment of the selling of petrol to the Islamic state as well as the cessation of any further cooperation with Iranian oil industry by one of the biggest Russian corporations, Look Oil Company, is evidence of Russia’s new position, aligned with US interests. Blaming the Russian government in his last public interview after this action, Ahmadinejad drew attention to Moscow’s recent policy shift. However, the case of China in this regard is still quite different.

The Chinese government is yet to reveal its intentions, in regard to the details of the new sanction. There is still a great sense of uncertainty from China about whether or not the Security Council should impose severe sanctions on the Islamic state and China still emphasises the importance of diplomatic negotiations. In this regard, China clearly manifests its opinion that no sanctions should target Iran’s fossil fuels resources. China’s concern about this issue becomes more understandable when we bear in mind that one of the significant differences between China and Russia is China’s lack of access to oil and gas resources.

While Russia has its own oil and gas industry and has no need of Iran’s exports, China could conceive of Iran as a source of its own deficiency. Indeed, China is the largest consumer of Iran’s oil exports. China’s need for oil is something that must be considered by the United States. One of Hillary Clinton’s missions during her visit to Saudi Arabia and Qatar last February was to convince these countries to fulfill China’s demand for oil in the absence of the availability of Iran’s resources. This is not, however, the only reason that China resists against imposing any kind of severe sanction against Iran.

Although the Chinese energy industry relies on Iran’s oil and gas, large scale Chinese investments in Iran’s oil industry and the Chinese dominance of almost all sections of the Islamic state’s market is the other side of the coin. Official statistics from the Islamic government report that while Germany was the first exporter to the Iranian market before Ahmadinejad’s term, China has filled the gap created by the absence of most western companies. During the last four years China has invested in Iran’s oil industry at three times the rate of prior years. When two months ago the giant French oil company Total left Iran, the Islamic state declared that their friendship with the Chinese meant there was no need for concern.

To clearly understand this situation, one must consider two phenomena simultaneously. First, Iran’s strategic shift towards the east shortly after its revolution. Second, the emergence of a new power bloc capable of challenging western interests. Russia and China are the leaders of this new alignment, with Iran and North Korea playing a secondary role. Both countries’ nuclear ambitions have been subject to a similar diplomatic struggle on an east-west axis.

After the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the Islamic state maintained its distance from western countries, specifically the United States, to show that the new regime’s foreign policy differed greatly from that of the previous regime. The United States had been a keen ally and supporter of the Shah, who was perceived to have transgressed the will of the Iranian people. Thus, in the shadow of the absence of an official US presence in Iran after the revolution, the Islamic regime’s foreign policy direction turned to the east.

While this new policy was warmly received by Russia and China, it is crucial to consider what evidence there is to suggest that these two countries are going to establish a new power bloc that confronts western interests. In this respect, Iran’s nuclear ambition provides these states with a unique opportunity to play the Iran card against western interests in the Security Council. Conflictingly, on one hand China and Russia call for full co-operation with the west in order to create a stable situation in the middle east; on the other hand, Iran’s nuclear ambitions seem to receive encouragement from both China and Russia.

Despite the fact that Russia and China are members of the UN Security Council and have condemned Iran’s nuclear program, Iran has never considered them as enemies. It is thought that China and Russia attempt to lessen anti-Iran convictions within the Security Council and encourage a more moderate treatment of Iran by the Security Council. As close friends to Iran and Security Council members with great influence on the middle east region, many Iranian intellectuals argue that both Chinese and Russian governments are more interested in dealing with a fundamentally anti-western Iranian regime than a reformist one.

The fact that Ahmadinejad was welcomed in Moscow and Beijing shortly after Iran’s controversial election, and their claim that the Islamic state’s behaviour towards its citizens during the last few months is an internal issue, has provoked many Iranians to consider China and Russia as “foreign advisors” to the Islamic regime. This is the main reason why Iranian protesters chanted against these two governments at the time of demonstrations.

As long as Iran is an isolated country in terms of its international relationships, China and Russia are capable of playing this role. The Iranian state believes that its strategic shift towards these two countries may pave the road to its nuclear ambitions. Whenever these two governments face difficulties with the US, Iran’s nuclear program may have opportunity to advance one step further. Hence Obama’s focus on resetting relations with Russia.

Although Iran’s nuclear ambitions offer China and Russia the advantageous position of interlocutors in the west’s relations with Iran, it is now easy to understand why Washington changed its policy to run a long and serious discussion with the Kremlin before imposing any new sanctions. While Bush’s government tried to impose sanctions regardless of China and Russia’s relationships with Iran, Obama’s plan now attempts to answer two problems at once. Obama’s foreign policy may be aiming at both the imposition of new sanctions on Iran and the forcing of a split among the members of this crystalising power bloc from within.

To this end, the US has shown its willingness to accommodate the Kremlin’s concerns about its missile-shield programme in Europe and has welcomed Russian oil companies in Iraq to cooperate with other western corporations. Such moves provide a backdrop to the US’ silence during recent events in Kyrgyzstan that have favoured the Kremlin.

Although China and Russia are the leaders of this emerging bloc, their own interests are likely to conflict at some stage. While China attempts to develop its presence in the middle east to both access energy to make up for its own deficit and to invest in that sector, Russia sees Iran’s large gas resources as a potential threat to its own position as the number one energy supplier to Europe. These conflicting interests have provided Obama’s administrative with the opportunity to prise open the Sino-Russian alignment.

Suggesting that such efforts are proving effective, Said Jalili, the present secretary of Iran's supreme national security council, has had discussions with Chinese officials several times during the last few months and visited Beijing early in April, while asserting that there was no plan at the moment to pursue further discussions with Moscow.

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