Iran may have hoped that China would step into the nuclear dispute on its side, perhaps by agreeing to serve as middleman for the fuel exchange. It looks like they'll be disappointed.
But today Beijing also sent the message that U.S.-Chinese relations would suffer another blow from an aggressive Western push on Iran coupled with a demand that China knuckle under and support sanctions.
The lead editorial in Global Times--the international affairs organ of People’s Daily and therefore an indication of the attitude of the Chinese leadership-- made the point that China resents being “taken hostage” by either side in the Iran crisis.
It sends some heat Iran’s way (though it will be clear from the remarks of China’s ex-ambassador to Iran quoted below, China believes that Iran is open to concessions), but the main object of criticism is the United States.
It is clear that China has decided to take the whole American “you gotta sanction Iran” approach as another episode (following the disastrous falling-out at Copenhagen) in which the United States is happy to employ wedge issues against China, not only to advance its immediate goals, but to isolate China and reduce its standing as a global power.
If the United States continues to take a hard line on China joining Iran sanctions, instead of backing off and continuing negotiations, China will take it as a conscious, hostile act against China.
The editorial’s first point is a reiteration of China’s position that the situation should be resolved through negotiations.
Then, the op-ed criticized the intractability of both parties, with considerable criticism for Iran, apparently in an effort to be even-handed:
When the survival of a nation’s political authority hangs in the balance, any government would possibly decide to stick out its chest and confront the danger. Only with patience, patience, and more patience can both sides obtain the necessary trust. It isn’t through firing off ballistic missiles, raising the level of uranium enrichment, or using the threat of strong sanctions, all at the slightest provocation, and causing the level of anger and suspicion to escalate.
Now, China complains about being caught in the middle (use of the loaded term “lowering its head” i.e. submitting, raising images of the humiliating "kow-tow", instead of the more neutral “support their side” is an indication that China wants the issue to be that China itself isn’t being properly respected):
Neverhtless, both the West and Iran are unheeding at this time. They both believe that only if they are unyielding, then the other side will back off at the end. This unenlightened attitude even extends to their attitude toward China. Both sides believe, all that’s needed is to put pressure on China, then China will, without considering its own interests…lower its head to them…This thinking is unrealistic.
Concerning China’s interests, it states that it has a right to protect its economic interests with Iran. On the U.S. side of the scale, the editorial makes the interesting statement that:
“China has always consistently supported the idea of the balance of interest of the great powers in regional issues.”
I’m not sure what this means. But it probably refers to China’s acknowledgment that the West, like China, has a right to meddle in the oil-rich Middle East, as long as one side doesn’t try to exclude or ignore the other. In other words, the West has a right to pressure Iran on the nuclear issue as long as they don't form a bloc excluding China.
In any case, here’s the warning:
Both sides should be clear: the party that tries to press China the hardest is the party most likely to be met with China’s refusal.
Both Iran and the West should make concessions. The final punctuation point in the Iran issue is absolutely not which way China votes at the UN… Both sides should be clear that the dilemma for China is how to bring the two parties together.
Recently in Western public opinion, there has been a call to use the Iran issue to isolate China. This is extremely superficial…China is a big country and its interests must be respected. China’s dilemma must be sympathized with. China’s proposal opposing sanctions must be understood. The big powers must cooperate and negotiate on the Iran issue. The American negotiator, Barshevsky, once said: To achieve an agreement, all parties have to benefit. Otherwise, in agreement can’t be achieved through intimidation; and if somehow an agreement comes about, it can’t be implemented. The great power discussions on Iran should take her words into account.
The final shot across the bow:
China is a great country. If anyone seeks to compel her, to injure her, they will certainly pay the price.
Message to the Obama administration: don't try to force China to kow-tow on sanctions. Instead, continue with negotiations.
As to China’s take on Iran’s position (and culpability for the stand-off), People’s Daily visited China’s ex-ambassador to Iran, Hua Liming.
Here’s what the article said:
Ambassador Hua told the paper that the main purpose of Iran’s declaration of its intention to purify its uranium to near 20% was to put pressure on the West and particularly the United States.
Only a week before, Achminejad had…stated that Iran was prepared to accept the UN nuclear fuel exchange agreement…indicating that Iran still hoped to reach an agreement with the IAEA, but that the exchange terms had to be beneficial to Iran.
Previously, the IAEA proposal called for Iran to ship its fuel to Russia, where it would be refined to 20%. Afterwards, the fuel would be shipped to France and fabricated into fuel rods. This span of time would be 12 months. Iran clearly was worried about the 12-month limit and had expressed a hope that the time be reduced to four to five months. However, the Western countries refused. Under these circumstances, Iran adopted a relatively unyielding attitude in order to put pressure on the West, hoping to preserve Iran’s nuclear development plan and avoid Western sanctions.
Ambassador Hua stated, “Unyielding” only is one side of the coin…the other side, “Concessions”, still exists. Iran has already indicated its attitude that it will accept the IAEA plan. In general, Iran still hopes for nuclear negotiations and would not lightly close the door to negotiations.
The article concludes with the observation that the Western countries are awaiting the outcome of the February 11 demonstrations to determine how weakened the government will be.