SINGAPORE — Will the world’s leading powers act in a more united way on Iran’s nuclear program than they have so far over climate change?
The answer will become clearer in the next few weeks. It is a key test of U.S. policy to engage China as a long-term partner on major international issues, including many that shape stability in Asia. From the early days of his administration, U.S. President Barack Obama has lobbied Chinese leaders over Iran. He has urged them to join the United States and its allies in increasing pressure on Tehran if it continues to defy resolutions of the U.N. Security Council by refusing to suspend its uranium enrichment program.
Israel says Iran is dangerously close to the point where it may be able to start making nuclear weapons and eventually fit them to the nose cones of missiles that can strike Israel and parts of Europe.
While U.S. officials say there is still time to pre-empt a crisis, they have told China that if Tehran continues to reject calls for a negotiated solution, it may not be possible to stop Israel from bombing nuclear targets in Iran, triggering turmoil in the Persian Gulf region, sending oil prices sharply higher and threatening oil supplies to China and other big energy importers in Asia.
U.S. officials have also warned China that if Iran follows North Korea and gets nuclear weapons, it will become more difficult to prevent a nuclear breakout in the Middle East and Asia as countries without atomic arms, including Japan, seek them for national security.
If this is a realistic scenario, it is one that would cause deep concern in Beijing. At present in Asia, only China, India, Pakistan and, most recently, North Korea have nuclear weapons.
Iran was a top item in Obama’s talks with Chinese President Hu Jintao when they met at the United Nations in September. It was prominent again at their summit in Beijing last month.
When China and Russia voted with the U.S. and European nations to censure Iran on Nov. 27 for failing to declare a second secret enrichment facility until September, it was welcomed in Washington as a significant development. In the new year, an overwhelming vote against Tehran at the International Atomic Energy Agency could pave the way for new U.N. penalties.
U.S. and European members of the U.N. Security Council have begun drafting a set of tougher sanctions for use against Iran if it fails by the end of December to carry through on a tentative deal struck in October. This called for Tehran to ship most of its declared stockpile of low-enriched uranium out of the country in exchange for fuel to run a research reactor producing material for nuclear medicine. The deal was seen as an essential step toward building confidence in Iran’s claim that its nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes, not weapons.
China and Russia voted with the other permanent members of the Security Council — Britain, France and the U.S. — to impose three previous sets of sanctions on Iran, each marginally wider than the last. But China and Russia — each of which has veto power over Security Council decisions — have ensured that the sanctions do not include general trade, conventional weapons, civil nuclear technology or energy, areas in which one or both of them are deeply involved in Iran.
The question now is will China and Russia agree to extend U.N. sanctions and, if so, into which sectors?
The U.S. House of Representatives approved legislation Dec. 15 that would impose penalties on foreign companies providing gasoline to Iran. Oil traders say that some of the firms involved in this business are Chinese. While Iran has the world’s third-largest oil reserves, it imports about 40 percent of its gasoline because of a lack of refining capacity.
Russia has recently indicated that it might be prepared to go along with more stringent U.N. sanctions. This would leave Beijing in an exposed position. It is wary of sanctions, arguing that they are counterproductive. And its growing economy has a huge appetite for Iranian oil and natural gas. China’s state-owned energy companies plan to invest well over $100 billion in Iran’s energy sector.
To persuade Beijing to join the next round of U.N. sanctions, the U.S. has been encouraging Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states apprehensive at Iran’s nuclear ambitions and growing power in the region to offer more long-term supplies of oil and gas to China. Officials from the United Arab Emirates have said they plan to increase oil exports to China.
As Beijing assesses its position, it may find that a renegade Iran is an obstacle to other more important Chinese interests, including energy security and nuclear proliferation.
Michael Richardson is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South East Asian Studies in Singapore.