Wednesday, January 10, 2007

China and Russia abandons Iran

China, Russia on road to abandoning Iran

ISN Security Watch 10 January 2007 China and Russia have agreed to UNSC Resolution 1737. Though watered down, it still sends a strong signal to Iran that its friends are not completely against joining hands with Western "devils."

Originally published in ISN Security Watch (10/01/07)

The unanimous United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1737 clearly puts Iran on the dock. Outwardly, it merely seeks to restrict Iran’s ability to trade in sensitive nuclear materials and to freeze the assets of 22 Iranian officials and institutions linked to its nuclear and missile programs. However, the willingness of friendly countries such as China and Russia to abandon their erstwhile hesitancy and endorse limited sanctions against Iran should be seen as a small but decisive victory for the beleaguered Bush administration.

The vote should also be an eye opener for those who have periodically stressed and hoped that China would adopt an independent policy vis-à-vis the US on Iran. While not ready to join the Western chorus against Tehran, Beijing is also not willing to embrace the ayatollahs’ nuclear ambitions.

For quite some time, it was clear that China was not prepared to accept a nuclear Iran. Its refusal to endorse US demands for punitive sanctions was coupled by its determination that Iran should peacefully resolve its dispute with the UN’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Partly due to its past involvement in missile and nuclear proliferation, Beijing has been extremely weary of another nuclear power in its neighborhood.

Likewise, the vote also underscored the fundamental priority of Chinese foreign policy. Its desire to adopt assertive foreign policy postures on issues such as Taiwan are always accompanied by its deep desire to maintain close political ties with Washington. This shift on Iran was clearly manifested at the IAEA. While it abstained in September 2004, it voted with the majority in February 2006. The shift clearly indicated that China was merely seeking adequate price and compensation for its accommodation of Western concerns over Iran.

Western willingness to settle for a watered-down resolution that lacks any real teeth also underscores Washington’s desire for an international consensus on Iran. Any tougher wording of the resolution could have resulted in China and Russia abstaining if not vetoing such a move. The US would rather have an international consensus against Iran than drive for a tougher resolution that might be seen as a sign of ganging up against Tehran.

Despite the limited nature of sanctions, the resolution pits Iran against the rest of the international community. Even if the real impact is marginal, the vote signals Iran’s isolation. Not many countries even in the West endorsed Bush’s axis of evil theory against Iran. But now even friendlier powers like China and Russia have sided with the US in isolating Iran.

National interests also continue to play a primary role in the Iran issue. Both Russia and China have strong economic interests in Iran. The former is committed to the construction of a nuclear power plant near Bushehr, originally started by the German company Siemens in the 1970s. Literally days before the UNSC vote, Iranian media reported that the Bushehr plant was on schedule.

China sees Iran as a major and stable source of energy supplies. Its galloping economy and the resulting increase in demand for hydrocarbon compel Beijing to look for long-term arrangements. China is committed to developing the Yadavaran oil fields. In October 2004, both countries signed a memorandum of understanding for the supply of 250 million tons of liquefied natural gas (LNG) from Iran over the next 25 years. It also includes the supply of 150,000 barrels of oil per day during the same period. The total deal is estimated at over US$120 billion.

In December, just days before the UNSC vote, the two countries signed another agreement for the supply of three million tons of LNG a year. This 25-year contract will begin with the flow of gas in 2011.

Such strong economic interests and investments in Iran prevent China from completely siding with the West. Any Chinese support to the West on Iran would thus have to be courted and compensated adequately.

At the same time, a number of countries in the Middle East are increasingly concerned about Iran and its defiant attitude toward the international community. The recent decision of the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council to seek the help and cooperation of the IAEA in developing nuclear energy and the ongoing debates in Egypt over the revival of nuclear power generation should be seen within this larger context. Iran is not just a threat to the West and its interests in the Middle East, but to an increasing number of Arab states.

As such, countries like China have to weigh their sympathies for Iran against their interests in the wider Arab world. As US officials declared, the limited sanctions are merely the first step toward more severe measures against Iran. So, when a friend like China abandons it, the ayatollahs in Iran get a shrill message: Comply or we will join hands with the “devil.”

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