Squeezed out [By Jiao Haiyang/Chiina.org.cn]
As events in Syria continue to dominate international headlines, and as criticisms are traded between the U.S., China and Russia over the efficacy of the UN Security Council, the issue of Iran has been rather pushed to the international periphery of late. However, it is over the issue of Iran, more than Syria, where China's power of influence will come into play and truly be tested. Iran provides 10-15 percent of China's oil supplies, but moves designed to reduce Chinese reliance on Iranian oil, alongside diplomatic posturing have sent the clearest message yet to Iran that their current position is becoming untenable.
Comments made last month by Chinese officials marked a departure from previous official utterances over Iran. This departure comes at a critical juncture in the world's dealings with Iran, and begins to erode the claim made by Ilan I. Berman, vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council, that China is not part of the solution regarding Iran; it is part of the problem.
In January, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao issued his most forthright statement so far regarding Iran. During a visit to the Gulf, Premier Wen stated that "China adamantly opposes Iran's development and subsequent possession of nuclear weapons". This blunt opposition to Iran's nuclear ambitions had the effect of isolating Iran, and far more than Iranian officials had thought possible. The comments were doubly damaging for Iran, because they came at the same time as a host of deals guaranteeing China a greater supply of oil from Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Clearly, the statements made by Wen Jiabao would seem to lean more towards being part of a solution than causing a problem; though the solution is distinct from any ideas espousing military might or economic sanctions.
The Chinese government's insistence on respecting national sovereignty may have caused Iranian officials to wrongly believe that they could pursue a course of alienating the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) without fear of penalty. However, the stakes may have become too high for China to risk the security of the Middle East, thereby jeopardizing its own development, simply so that one country can cloak its nuclear development. Both the IAEA's statement made last November that "evidence indicates that Iran has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear device", and US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta's comment that there is "a strong likelihood" of an Israeli strike on Iran as early as April, appear to illustrate the fact.
This is the context in which Chinese officials are urging Iran to seek a resumption of talks with the P5-plus-one group (the United States, Germany, France, Britain, Russia and China), and to cooperate with UN nuclear inspectors. Israeli analysts believe that if force is to be used to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear bomb, then it must be used soon. China's stance, published in a 2008 white paper, that "the Iranian nuclear issue should be resolved peacefully by political and diplomatic means" has been put to the test by Israel's resolve to protect its interests in the region. China's reduction in oil imports from Iran, estimated by Reuters to amount to 14 percent for 2012, can be interpreted as a diplomatic measure intended not only to safeguard its own energy interests, but also to exert pressure on an increasingly isolated Iran.
At a press conference held on February 23, China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei called on Iran to work with the IAEA in order to "restore the international community's confidence in Iran's plan for the peaceful use of nuclear power". While falling short of overt criticism, the call displays the Chinese government's dwindling confidence in Iran following claims of a deep underground complex being built nearby the ancient city of Qom.
On February 25, the Economist asserted that the international community "cannot eliminate Iran's capacity to gain the bomb, it can only change its [Iran's] will to possess one", through diplomacy and sanctions rather than war. China continues to oppose fresh rounds of sanctions against Iran in the belief that sanctions damage global trade; a sentiment Premier Wen made clear during his visit to the Gulf. An EU embargo on Iranian oil, however, will add further tension to the situation.
The following months will be a nervy time period in which China's own norms will be put to the test as it attempts to persuade, convince and indirectly force Iran into a conciliatory stance regarding IAEA inspections. Failure to achieve much-needed cooperation could potentially destabilize the region and damage global trade; a fact Chinese officials appear to be mindful of.
Stuart Wiggin is a news editor at China Radio International. He graduated from Oxford University majoring in modern history and politics.
Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors, not necessarily those of China.org.cn.