Iran looks to China for backing in nuclear dispute
By Salar Ghahramani
Iran's decision to resume its uranium conversion activities signals a major shift in
the country's foreign policy under the newly-inaugurated conservative president,
Prior to Ahmadinejad and during the reign of the more moderate president Mohammad
Khatami, Iran accepted a temporary freeze on most of its nuclear programme. It agreed
to multilateral negotiations with France, Germany, and Britain and also allowed the
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to inspect its nuclear facilities on a
But Iran's internal dynamics have drastically changed in the past few weeks.
With Ahmadinejad in office, the conservatives now run every major decision-making
body in Iran. After eight years of having to share power with moderates,
conservatives can now pursue Iran's nuclear programme which, they insist, is for
peaceful means only.
Iran's policy-makers have calculated that they can move forward with the country's
nuclear programme without any serious repercussions. Instead of worrying about what
the West might do to hold back the nuclear programme, Iranians are looking east,
where they see a rising giant and a close ally in China.
The alliance is mutually beneficial: Iran supplies the energy-hungry China with oil
and key industrial minerals essential to China's rapidly expanding economy. In
return, China provides Iran with military and civilian technology.
The business dealings are fuelled and politicized by both countries' dislike of the
For China, Iran's vast oil and gas reserves are a reliable and constant source of
energy, especially because the market's most powerful players – Exxon Mobil,
Chevron-Texaco and other American companies - are barred from drilling in Iran due to
the existing U.S. sanctions.
In the past 15 months, China has signed a number of energy contracts with Iran,
including a 25-year agreement valued at more than $100 billion over the next decade.
That deal gives Chinese companies a 51% interest in the vast Yadavaran oilfield,
Iran's biggest onshore field.
Under the agreement's additional terms, Chinese engineers and excavation specialists
will be helping Iran develop its South Pars fields in the Persian Gulf, the largest
natural-gas reserve on the planet.
Iran shares the South Pars fields with its small Persian Gulf neighbor, Qatar.
Soon after this agreement was signed, Li Zhaoxing, the Chinese foreign minister, paid
a visit to Iran, saying that China saw “no reason'‘ to refer Iran's nuclear programme
to the United Nations. Such comments from a Chinese official are good news for Iran,
because China sits on the United Nations' Security Council, the only body that can
impose economic sanctions on member states.
As a permanent member, China can veto any resolution that comes before the Council.
It is expected that China would veto any resolution aimed at Iran's nuclear
Given the Sino-Iranian relationship, the U.S. and the EU are reluctant to see Iran's
case go before the Security Council.
They would rather see continued negotiations and hope the impasse will end.
Due to the precariousness of the situation, the IAEA's board of governors' most
recent resolution, adopted by consensus on August 11, only expresses “serious
concern'‘ over Iran's resumed activities in Isfahan.
It urges Iran to re-suspend its enrichment related activities on a “voluntary,
non-legally binding basis'‘.
The resolution contains no mention of a Security Council referral, although it asks
Iran to suspend its renewed uranium conversion activities by September 3. If Iran
does not comply with the request by September, the IAEA will probably revisit the
case and come up with another resolution, which will, most likely, also be void of a
referral to the Security Council.
This is not just because of the China factor, but also because IAEA board members,
which represent 13 of the 35 board seats, are in the nonaligned movement (Nam), which
aims to safeguard the nuclear interests of developing countries. Nam members include
nuclear states such as Brazil, Argentina, Pakistan and South Africa, who fear that a
resolution against Iran could later comeback to haunt their own nuclear programmes.
As a result, the current circumstances leave the U.S. and the EU with limited options
on how to deal with Iran. Ultimately, EU members might create a sanctions regime of
their own, although European countries have historically been reluctant to act
unilaterally and without the blessing of the Security Council in such cases.
As for the U.S., surgical military strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities are a
However, they are unlikely because of the U.S. involvement in Iraq, the U.S.
military's diminished resources, and President Bush's low approval ratings,
particularly in regard to his handling of the war in Iraq.
Until an agreement is reached, through diplomacy or by force, the world will be
watching Iranian technicians roll out barrels of yellowcake.
* Salar Ghahramani is a lecturer in political science at Pennsylvania State