The View from Beijing of Iran


2013-08-27 By Richard Weitz

Having discussed Russia’s policies towards Iran in an earlier contribution, I thought it instructive to analyze China’s policies towards Tehran to highlight the similarities and differences in their approach, which are often overlooked.

I was fortunate in having been in Beijing earlier this month attending a nonproliferation and disarmament conference that addressed this issue.

During the past decade, China has joined Russia in opposing Iran’s efforts to acquire sensitive nuclear technologies but concurs with Moscow that the Iranian nuclear program has now developed too far to be entirely reversed.

Chinese policy makers still oppose Tehran’s acquiring nuclear weapons, so they want Iran to limit the magnitude of its nuclear activities as well as make them highly transparent to foreign monitoring to ensure their peaceful nature.

Chinese officials also agree with their Russian counterparts that the best way to dampen any Iranian nuclear weapons ambitions is through dialogue, negotiations, and reassurance rather than threats or sanctions.

Nonetheless, China differs from Russia in its concern for Gulf oil deliveries to China, in more explicitly describing Western policies towards Iran as hypocritical, in supporting Tehran’s ballistic missile program, and in seeking to hide behind Moscow’s lead in blocking Western sanctions against Iran.

Beijing’s main fear is that Iran’s obtaining nuclear program would increase the risk of war in the Middle East, the source of about half of China’s imported oil. Even without a war in the Gulf, the spread of nuclear weapons capacity to additional countries generally weakens Beijing’s influence since it dilutes China’s status as one of the few countries possessing nuclear weapons.

A refinery in Wuhan, China, has boosted its imports of Iranian fuel oil. Credit Photo: Reuters

Conversely, Chinese policy makers are less concerned than the Russian counterparts about how Iran’s missile launches are spurring U.S. ballistic missile defense (BMD) efforts.

At times, Chinese companies have been the main supplier of missiles and their components and technologies to Iran.

From Beijing’s perspective, the major driver of U.S. BMD and other defense efforts affecting China is North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile testing. Some Chinese analysts see these programs as driving or intensifying the U.S. and Japanese military buildups in Asia, while others see Pyongyang’s problematic behavior as simply providing Washington and Tokyo with the pretext they need to strengthen their capabilities against China.

But both groups of PRC analysts argued that, even if Iran ceased its suspect nuclear and missile activities, the U.S. and Japanese military buildups would continue.

Even more than their Russian colleagues, PRC representatives complain about efforts to hold Iran to unjustly higher nonproliferation standards than other countries. They call for more dialogue and fewer “double standards.” They see Western hypocrisy in how Western governments do not press Israel or India to join the NPT, while attacking Iran, which is a NPT member and accepts IAEA safeguards. From Beijing’s perspective, the West only wants to sanction its enemies but not its friends.

Beijing’s desire to avoid regime change in Tehran leads PRC policy makers to strive to dissuade Iranian leaders to evince greater negotiating flexibility regarding their nuclear program.

But Beijing limits its direct pressure on Iran.

Chinese officials prefer that other countries, especially the United States, bear the economic and diplomatic costs of constraining Iran.

Even more, Beijing’s opposition to regime change in Tehran leads PRC policy makers to oppose the use of force or coercive sanctions that Chinese analysts suspect are aimed at overthrowing the Iranian regime.

Some Chinese analysts think that Western countries are trying to weaken China by overthrowing the Iranian government or at least causing tensions that raise world oil prices. Chinese business and strategic interests would suffer if the Iranian green opposition came to power.

As in Libya, a new government would likely strive to punish China for its past support for the Iranian clerical regime. Chinese interests would suffer even if the new government simply reconciled with the West since many Iranian businesses would naturally gravitate toward Western rather than Chinese partners.

Furthermore, reduced Iranian-Western tensions would allow Washington to focus more on Asia and deprive Beijing of leverage regarding U.S. policy toward Taiwan.

China has become Iran’s most important economic partner.

This position is due to:

  • The West’s unilateral sanctions on their companies doing business with Iran,
  • The withdrawal of many European and other Asian firms from the Iranian market,
  • China’s becoming Iran’s number one oil purchaser,
  • and Moscow’s wariness about selling Iran Russia’s most advanced military or civil nuclear technologies.

While commercial ties between Russia and Iran have stagnated, trade between China and Iran has been surging.

Chinese officials have defended their country’s trade with Iran as normal commercial relations that do not harm other countries or violate UN sanctions. In partnership with their Russian colleagues, they have repeatedly sought to block or soften UNSC sanctions.

PRC policy makers sometimes support modest multilateral sanctions to avert more severe Western actions, such as the use of force or Western supplementary sanctions imposed outside the UN Security Council. China is most likely to support UNSC sanctions when necessary to avert an imminent war, which would inflict worse damage than sanctions by disrupting China’s energy supplies, both directly from the region and by raising the world prices of oil and gas.

In recent Iranian nuclear crisis, PRC policy makers have not considered war imminent.

But China has also supported UN sanctions to avert unilateral supplementary sanctions by Western governments that would inflict even more damage on China’s economic interests. China, along with several other important countries such as Russia, opposes these supplementary sanctions since they penalize foreign firms not under U.S. or EU jurisdiction. China cannot veto these sanctions, as it can with proposed UNSC measures.

In each case, Chinese policy makers must calculate whether milder UN measures would inflict less harm on Chinese business interests than Western unilateral sanctions. In fact, many PRC firms with large economic stakes in Iran have few business ties with Western countries. Chinese firms are generally bolder than Russian companies at exploiting Western sanctions and Iranian distress to achieve favorable investment or other business deals in Iran.

In a parallel manner with how U.S. policy makers view Beijing’s critical role in the case of North Korea, PRC policy makers consider Washington the key player on the Iran issue.

For example, they do not believe that Israel would attack Iran without U.S. approval. In trying to influence the Iranian situation, Chinese policy makers direct many of their diplomatic efforts towards Washington.

Yet, even more so than their Russian colleagues, PRC strategists recognize that ties with the United States are much more important to their country than those with Iran.

They also do not want to be seen by Washington as the main obstacle to U.S. policies regarding Iran. Chinese diplomats try to maneuver so that let Russia, which shares many of Beijing’s goals regarding Iran, leads resistance to Western sanctions.

If U.S. policy makers were to confront Beijing with a stark choice of being “with us or against us” on the Iranian nuclear program, Beijing would more likely side with Washington.

But thus far they have not faced such a stark choice.

Editor’s Note: For the article within which the refinery photo appeared see the following:

Wayne Ma and Tennille Tracy, “Sanctions Gap Allows China to Import Iranian Oil,”

August 22, 2013, Wall Street Journal.

This Fall we are publishing a book with Praeger publishers which looks at the evolution of PRC policy in the broader Pacific context:

For our Strategic Inflection Points report which looks at both the evolution of the PRC and the impact of a nuclear iran see the following: