Sunday, February 14, 2010

A Wedge Too Far?

Via Laura Rozen, more talk of Hillary Clinton jawboning Saudi Arabia to assure Chinese energy supplies if a) China votes for Iran sanctions and b) Iran’s petroleum exports to China are disrupted as a result.

China, of course, considers itself a great power with its own energy allies in the Middle East, not an awkward teenager who needs mom’s Chevron card to gas up the sin wagon.

Anyway, if Iran oil goes off the market, every producer in the world, including Saudi Arabia, will be pumping like crazy to take advantage of the higher prices.

So I wonder if this highly and unnecessary publicized offer is just another wedge, designed to force China either to betray its alliance with Iran or insult the Saudis by spurning their generosity.

Beyond that issue, I see a problem: according to Rozen's sources, the Security Council resolution will not involve onerous and extensive sanctions. Russia, despite its current desire to curry favor with the United States on Iran, will apparently see to that.

Disruption of Iran’s energy exports will come if and when the EU and the United States decide to go for “crippling sanctions”, as Israel demands. The theory is that a unanimous Security Council resolution would be the politically enabling event that could trigger EU and US sanctions.

Raising the issue of China’s energy supplies in the case it is cut off from Iran sends a rather clear signal that “crippling sanctions” beyond those expected from the Security Council are on the table. And China will have zero leverage on the nature of sanctions once the U.S. gets past the Security Council.

I don’t think China is going to believe any assurances from Hillary Clinton that, if China votes for sanctions, nothing too bad will happen to Tehran after Iran sanctions become a plaything for the implacably hostile U.S. Congress.

If China voted for Security Council sanctions and then had to stand by helplessly as the EU and U.S. (and a healthy collection of warships in the Persian Gulf) shut down Iranian oil exports, China’s interests, self-esteem, and international perceptions of its role as a reliable ally and regional force would suffer.

So the “Saudis will give you oil” line may be counterproductive when it comes to getting a Chinese aye vote in the Security Council.

Judging from the Chinese papers and blogs, resentment over China getting caught in the middle of the U.S.-Iran scrap is universal, mixed with grudging awareness that China got stuck there because the Russians apparently decided to side with the U.S. on sanctions.

There’s some thought that the Russian move was inspired both by Moscow’s need for a ratcheting down of U.S. missile defense and NATO expansion plans, and by a desire to put China in its place.

One columnist voiced hopes for China to step up as the essential middleman, persuading Iran to back off on 20% enrichment, and thereby cracking the anti-Iran united front and asserting China’s relevance in the Middle East in one fell swoop.

China faces an array of bad choices and unlikely options, and renewed challenges in translating its economic and military heft into geopolitical influence.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out.


blowback said...

"One columnist voiced hopes for China to step up as the essential middleman, persuading Iran to back off on 20% enrichment..."

If the Chinese had any sense they would quietly manufacture fuel rods for the TRR, then fly them into Tehran, help the Iranians install them and then fly the equivalent LEU back to China so that Iran would have no need to enrich to 20%. Oh, and sit back enjoy watching Obama and Clinton's jaws hit the floor.

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