China’s response to the new UN Security Council sanctions on Iran provide a useful perspective on Chinese policy and its movement toward a new, post-Bush and post-terror alternative doctrine for managing international crises.
The story of the Iran nuclear crisis can be summed up with the acronym SSDD:
Same Sanctions Different Day
There is certainly a feeling of deja vu as months of concerted flailing by the United States have only served to produce another inconclusive Iran sanction.
It’s a reflection of what might be called the post-Cold War, post-veto United Nations environment.
The United States might be willing to go on the record with a veto when, particularly in matters of Israel, the sense of the UN is against it.
But it looks China has a stronger interest in upholding the image of the UN as a valid arena for crisis resolution and compromise.
Therefore, when an undesirable resolution is coming down the pipe, China concentrates on diluting and muddling it, make sure there are no onerous interpretative or enforcement elements, voting for it, then hurrying to the spin room to explain what its vote really meant.
Case in point: Resolution 1803, the third round of sanctions on Iran.
There have been some attempts in the Western press to present the vote (14-0 with Indonesia abstaining) as a sign of world resolve to pressure the Iranians for refusing to give the IAEA the answers it wants about its allegedly abandoned weapons program, or suspend uranium enrichment.
Courtesy of Xinhua, let’s see what Chinese-language coverage had to say (all translations by China Matters):
[The resolution] emphasized diplomatic efforts, resumed dialogue and negotiations with Iran...balance between sanctions and encouragement of negotiations
[There are] strict limits on targets of sanctions...sanctions are “reversible”, temporarily or even permanently if Iran takes positive steps to implement the Security Council resolution...
[D]ifferent countries have different interpretations of the resolution...roots [of deadlock] are in the severe lack of mutual trust between the United States and Iran. If this problem is not resolved, then there will be no breakthrough on the Iran nuclear question.
To increase mutual trust, the concerned parties all have to pay attention to the positive content of the resolution—promoting discussions.
As China’s permanent representative to the United Nations said...the purpose of the resolution is not to punish Iran, it is to encourage the revival of a new round of diplomatic efforts...only relying on sanctions will not resolve the problem, military action is an even less productive route.
...neither the United States nor Iran closed the door on negotiations for good [!!!—ed.]
To summarize for those unwilling to wrestle with Xinhua-speak:
The root cause of the Iran problem is distrust between the United States and Iran. The problem can only be solved by discussions between Washington and Teheran. These sanctions are face-saving bullsh*t.
Wang Guangya, the PRC ambassador to the UN, helpfully laid out the Chinese position in Xinhua’s English-language coverage as well.
Just in case anybody didn’t get the message, the article is entitled Chinese envoy: New UN resolution aims to reactivate diplomatic efforts on Iran :
On the issue of sanctions, Wang stated:
These [sanctions] "are not targeted at the Iranian people and will not affect the normal economic and financial activities between Iran and other countries," Wang said after the vote. "All the sanction measures are reversible."
Emphasis, as they say, added.
I might point out that sanctions that “do not affect the normal economic and financial activities between Iran and other countries” are not particularly effective or intimidating.
In this context, it should be noted that Stuart Levey, head of Treasury Department’s Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, has been crisscrossing the world working to convince the world’s governments and banks to tighten up financial sanctions on Iran...just as Treasury attempted, with a spectacular and, at least in China Matters, well-documented lack of success, to suffocate North Korea financially.
The North Korean sanctions failed because China refused to be intimidated by the threat of sanctions against Chinese banks—despite the demonstration project on Macao’s Banco Delta Asia—and declined to cut off North Korea’s international financial dealings.
Wang Guangya just made the announcement that China will do the same for Iran.
Business as usual, no matter what Washington says.
Big-picture-wise, I’ve asserted frequently that Iran recapitulates North Korea, not Iraq.
In other words, the Chinese, the Russians, and enough Europeans rejected the U.S. strategy of escalating pressure on, and progressive concessions by, North Korea, so the United States finally had to abandon zero-sum and switch to win-win negotiations.
Same thing with Iran.
The other powers don’t care enough about our goals to kick Teheran’s ass on our behalf.
Just the opposite, maybe.
In its Chinese-language coverage, Xinhua made the interesting choice of bookending its lead article on the UNSC vote with a piece of think-tankage by Tian Wenlin of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations entitled What the Iran Nuclear Crisis Tells Us :
Tian argues that the lesson of the Iran nuclear standoff is that imbalance in military strength is a root cause of international instability.
Looking at the four conflicts [First Gulf War, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq War], the bigger the discrepancy between US and opposing forces, the easier it is to provoke an American desire to attack...Saddam Hussein voluntarily destroyed his weapons of mass destruction, thereby allowing America to attack without worry. In the opposite example, North Korea...
On the Iranian nuclear issue, the top Iranian leadership has been completely unyielding, since they are completely clear that if they showed weakness, the United States would take an inch and want a mile, demand further concessions without end at Iran’s expense.
Ahmadinejad said, “If this question is resolved, the United States would bring up human rights. If human rights were resolved, they’d bring up animal rights.”
[Faced with Iran’s unyielding determination], the United States unwillingly abandoned its intent to attack.
China rising paranoiacs will find a goodly amount to chew on in Tian’s conclusion that military strength—specifically naval strength and aircraft carriers, lots of them!—are necessary to secure China’s economic progress.
Non-proliferation types, of course, will find interesting the unstated premise of Tian’s article--that it might be OK, or even desirable, for Iran to have the bomb so it can continue to resist US pressure.
But on Iran matters, I think the selection of the piece is more significant in that it once again places the onus for the Iran nuclear crisis on the United States.
Tian eschews the ‘nutty mullah’ narrative in favor of blaming the United States for its destabilizing overreliance on coercion backed by its military superiority.
His piece reinforces the theme in the main article that it will take U.S. engagement and concessions, and not a campaign of ostracization orchestrated by the United States and imposed through its allies to come up with a solution.
Especially, of course, since China has signaled its resolve to deploy its diplomatic and financial good offices to break any attempt to construct a meaningful U.S.-led economic blockade of Iran.
America's dubious takeaway from this round of sanctions can be assessed by exploring the key subtext to the UN jibber-jabber--the US attempt to task the IAEA with a brief to investigate discrepancies in the Iranian account of its weapons-related activities more forcefully.
Bush administration gamesmanship with the IAEA was perhaps crucial in stiffening Chinese resolve that the sanctions be meaningless.
The Bush administration, keen to orchestrate another round of sanctions and obviously unhappy with its own intelligence agencies NIE discounting Iranian nuclear weapons-related activity, had worked successfully to put Iran’s alleged weapons-related activity and intentions back on the table at the IAEA working level using the so-called Laptop of Death--purportedly smuggled out of Iran in 2004 and containing evidence of illicit nuclear weaponization activity.
The last minute presentation at the end of February by the IAEA to the international diplomatic community before the UN vote, employed Laptop material and some additional videos provided to the IAEA by the US or our friends.
It showed purported Iranian activities in the area of nuclear tipped missiles, and triggered a door-slamming fury by the Iranians.
Just when the Iranians thought that the discussion could be defined to the manageable issue of what they were or weren’t doing with their uranium enrichment program, the whole amorphous and open-ended issue of what the Iranians might have done, thought about, or intended to do with weaponized nuclear material was reopened by the United States.
The IAEA was compelled to keep the allegations on the front burner.
There was some talk that the presentation was an effort by the IAEA chief verification guy, Olli Heinonen, to undercut El Baradei and express distaste for his grandstanding, Iran-friendly diplomacy.
But I think it’s more likely that the IAEA felt it had an obligation to assess the credibility of the allegations, and also to co-opt the accusations and make sure that it kept control over the whole Iranian nuclear portfolio and out of the hands of the US even though the alleged issues—about missiles and triggers—would seem to be beyond its conventional non-proliferation brief and expertise.
The United States perhaps came out of the episode feeling rather smug that it had paved the way for the third round of sanctions.
The US had also been able to put the NIE behind it, drive the IAEA into a corner, control the public debate on Iran’s program, prevent the IAEA from ever closing the Iran case by turning the debate to virtually unprovable questions of intent, and provide an opening for the U.S. to monitor and second-guess the IAEA's work inside Iran.
But our gains look pretty minimal.
The Russians (with Chinese support) briskly 86’ed the US plan to build on the UN Security Council vote by obtaining a get-tough-on-Iran resolution from the IAEA board of directors under the pretext that the new (toothless) sanctions under UNSCR 1803 were sufficient.
So what did the Bush administration really get from this most recent round of Iran diplomacy?
It looks like what it got was a meaningless UNSC resolution that the Chinese have already pledged to undercut; continued IAEA independence and control over the Iran portfolio; a frustrated Iranian sense that the U.S. is still committed to confrontation; growing international awareness that trying to accommodate the US through the mechanisms of the IAEA is probably futile; and, I expect, an emerging global consensus that a united front is needed not against Iran but against the United States in order to pressure it to engage in meaningful direct negotiations.
For good measure, we elicit the assertion of a Chinese doctrine that it is US employment of military power—and not terrorism—that is the root cause of global instability, and that increased military investment by China is the necessary, inevitable, and justified response.