The Dragon and the Atom: How China Sees Iran and the Nuclear Negotiations

If an agreement is not reached, a question worth asking in hindsight is whether a Chinese role could have been more constructive in the delicate nuclear talks...

Editor’s Note: The following is part four of a new occasional series called Dragon Eye, which seeks insight and analysis from Chinese writings on world affairs. Part one of the series, “What Does China Really Think About the Ukraine Crisis?” can be found here. Part two of the series, “The World’s Most Dangerous Rivalry: China and Japan,” can be found here. Part three of the series, “How China Sees America’s Moves in Asia: Worse than Containment,” can be found here.

Whether or not the current negotiations regarding Iran’s nuclear status lead to an agreement will have enormous consequences for world politics. These consequences will extend well beyond the region itself to impact alignments among the great powers.

The point is often made that Russia’s influence on the process of negotiations is particularly crucial. In that respect, there is no doubt that the grave international crisis in Ukraine in 2014 has significantly complicated the negotiations. If the Iran negotiations end in failure, the turmoil in Kiev and eastern Ukraine may be largely to blame. However, preliminary indications suggest that Moscow has decided not to obstruct, but rather to facilitate, the nuclear negotiations.

What of Beijing’s stance on the critical nuclear talks? Unlike Russia, China is a major importer of Iranian oil and, moreover, the Middle Kingdom’s influence in the Middle East has been growing by leaps and bounds as its trade with the region has mushroomed over the last decade. This edition of Dragon Eye will seek for a deeper understanding of China’s position on the Iran situation by surveying several recent Mandarin-language writings on the issue.

It’s worth noting at the outset the somewhat extraordinary visit of a Chinese naval flotilla to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas in September 2014. This event, barely noticed in the Western media, provided the front-page story for 环球时报 [Global Times] on September 23 under the large banner headline: “西方炒作我舰队进波斯湾” [The West Spins Story Concerning Entrance of Our Fleet into the Persian Gulf]. The article, in the main, does report on Western appraisals, quoting one story that has an Iranian commenting that the Chinese ships’ visit is meant to secure China’s major commercial interests in Iran, but does not signify that China had come to defend Iran. Indeed, this visit, the first ever by a Chinese naval squadron to Iran, may most clearly signify just how cautious Beijing has been in dealing with the Iran nuclear crisis over the last decade. In that spirit, this article relates that a Russian warship had visited the same port last year. However, this article also strikes a nationalist chord, quoting an analysis from the Hong Kong paper Ming Pao: the Chinese port visit has “broken America’s blockade … [America] comes to our near seas to stir up problems, so then we will go to the Persian Gulf which [the US] considers important and undertake joint exercises with Iran.”

An interesting scholarly article appeared in the journal 国际政治 [International Politics] in mid-2014 that was “An Evaluation of the Effectiveness of U.S. Sanctions against Iran.” The author observes that because of Washington’s enormous economic power, many countries “被迫” [were forced] to abandon cooperation with Iran. The author somewhat ambiguously places China among many Asian states, including Japan, South Korea and India, that have “大幅减少” [severely curtailed] oil imports from Iran. At that point, the author departs somewhat from political correctness in China, where it is often held that sanctions are wholly detrimental, and the assessment is offered that the sanctions produced “一定冲击” [a certain shock] within Iranian domestic politics, causing the Iranian people to elect the moderate Rouhani. The author goes on to explicitly concede that the sanctions effort succeeded in bringing Iran back to the negotiating table. And yet the article also points out that Tehran has continued to move ahead aggressively with nuclear and missile programs. This analysis, like many other Chinese discussions of the Iran crisis in recent years, holds that the United States does not really have any other realistic means to employ against Iran other than sanctions and, moreover, that Tehran is prepared in case the talks fail. In the end, the author concludes somewhat pessimistically that the sanctions and related negotiations are unlikely to curb Iran’s “地区野心” [wild regional ambitions] and that it is difficult to use economic tools to try to resolve security issues.