2005 March 11 Friday
China Iran Ties Undermining US Leverage On Iran

Kenneth Pollack thinks the US and Europe could stop Iran's nuclear program with the threat of economic sanctions combined with an offer of great trade ties if Iran would just give up ints nuclear weapons development efforts.

Although Iranian leaders agree on the strategic value of a strong nuclear program, they are divided over just how strong it should be. Conservative ideologues press for a nuclear breakout in defiance of international opinion, whereas conservative realists argue that restraint best serves Iran's interests. The ideologues, who view a conflict with the United States as inevitable, believe that the only way to ensure the survival of the Islamic Republic—and its ideals—is to equip it with an independent nuclear capability. Ali Akbar Nateq-Nuri, a conservative presidential candidate in 1997 and now an influential adviser to Khamenei, dismissed Tehran's recent negotiations with the Europeans, noting, "Fortunately, the opinion polls show that 75 to 80 percent of Iranians want to resist and [to] continue our program and reject humiliation." In the cosmology of such hard-liners, nuclear arms have not only strategic value, but also currency in domestic politics. Iranian conservatives see their defiance of the Great Satan as a means of mobilizing nationalistic opinion behind a revolution that has gradually lost popular legitimacy.

In contrast, the clerical realists warn that, with Iran under intense international scrutiny, any act of provocation by Tehran would lead other states to embrace Washington's punitive approach and further isolate the theocratic regime. In an interview in 2002, the pragmatic minister of defense, Ali Shamkhani, warned that the "existence of nuclear weapons will turn us into a threat to others that could be exploited in a dangerous way to harm our relations with the countries of the region." The economic dimension of nuclear diplomacy is also pushing the pragmatists toward restraint, as Iran's feeble economy can ill afford the imposition of multilateral sanctions. "If there [are] domestic and foreign conflicts, foreign capital will not flow into the country," Rafsanjani has warned. "In fact, such conflicts will lead to the flight of capital from this country."

While Pollack places great importance on the power of economic sanctions to bring Iran to shelve its nuclear weapons development program trends in trade are well along the way toward making that threat very hollow. The United States and the EU are going to become less important in world trade as China, India and other south and east Asian countries develop.

The Iranians are moving to reduce their reliance on customer countries that are allied with the United States. Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Namdar Zanganeh says Iran is going to replace Japan with China as Iran's biggest oil customer.

"Japan is our number one energy importer for historical reasons . . . but we would like to give preference to exports to China," Zanganeh was quoted as saying in China Business Weekly magazine.

China is protecting Iran from sanctions in the UN Security Council.

Earlier this month, Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing, who has just crowned a year of negotiations between the two countries, paid a rare visit to Tehran. In a meeting with Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, Li said Beijing would oppose US efforts to refer Iran to the UN Security Council over its nuclear program.

China would probably be joined by Russia and perhaps even France in voting in the UN Security Council against trade sanctions on Iran.

China will increasing be able to supply Iran with any goods that the EU and America refuse to sell.

In turn, China has become a major exporter of manufactured goods to Iran, including computer systems, household appliances and cars. "They have industry and we have energy resources," said Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran's former representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

China's trade with Iran also is weakening the impact on Iranian policy of various U.S. economic embargoes, analysts here say. "Sanctions are not effective nowadays because we have many options in secondary markets, like China," said Hossein Shariatmadari, a leading conservative theorist and editor.

China's demand for energy is rising very rapidly.

In 2003, China raced past Japan to become the world's second biggest consumer of petroleum products after the US.

In 2004, its thirst grew by 15%, while its output only rose 2%.

China is helping Iran develop a stronger weapons manufacturing capability.

The US Central Intelligence Agency has submitted a report to US Congress stating that Chinese companies have "helped Iran move toward its goal of becoming self-sufficient in the production of ballistic missiles". In the ongoing controversy over Iran's uranium enrichment program, China has also opposed bringing the issue before the UN Security Council, and has even threatened to veto any resolution that is brought against Iran.

China and Iran are signing massive oil and natural gas development deals.

TEHRAN -- Speaking of business as unusual. A mere two months ago, the news of a China-Kazakhstan pipeline agreement, worth US$3.5 billion, raised some eyebrows in the world press, some hinting that China's economic foreign policy may be on the verge of a new leap forward. A clue to the fact that such anticipation may have totally understated the case was last week's signing of a mega-gas deal between Beijing and Tehran worth $100 billion. Billed as the "deal of the century" by various commentators, this agreement is likely to increase by another $50 to $100 billion, bringing the total close to $200 billion, when a similar oil agreement, currently being negotiated, is inked not too far from now.

US influence on the world has peaked. Rumoured plans for a US air strike against Iran's nuclear weapons development facilities are probably the only practical option available for delaying Iran's nuclear program. But even air strikes will not prevent Iran from eventually developing nuclear weapons. Also those air strikes will cost the United States diplomatically. My guess is that the Bush Administration will probably carry out those air strikes. Though I'm unsure on this point.

The Bush Administration is unlikely to strike hard at Iranian oil and natural gas production facilities because to do so would cause skyrocketing energy prices. The US economy would suffer along with the rest of the world and the United States would be widely (and correctly) seen as responsible for bringing on a world economic recession. My guess is that even Bush will shrink from making such a move.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2005 March 11 12:09 PM  US Foreign Weapons Proliferation Control

GUYK said at March 11, 2005 3:52 PM:

Bush might strike Iran's nuke facilities but I would rather believe the strike-if any-will come from Israel. They have a track record of taking out nuke facilities and have little to lose in world opinion which is for the most paart against them anyway!

It is also my opinion that diplomatic effort with Iran for damn near anything is doomed before it starts. Tyrants such as the hard line mullahs appear to see diplomatic efforts as an appeasement and an appeasement a weakness to exploit. In the history of mankind appeasement has never soved a problem between two governments unless the appeasement resulted in total capulation by the appeaser. Tyrants respect strength! They may not like it too well but they damn well respect it.

TangoMan said at March 11, 2005 7:20 PM:

Both the Iranians and the Chinese are playing variants of the "an enemy of my enemy is my friend" strategy and they'll both reap the consequences in the decades to follow.

Let's just assume that the Chinese eclipse the US in terms of global economic presence. Now consider what the US strategic interest in the Middle East is all about. Oil and Israel. If the Chinese were top dog how would their presence in the region be felt? Would they be any more "sensitive" than the Americans? If the American christians are looked upon as infidels, then what to make of the Chinese budhists and other religions?

America is a power far removed from the Middle East. China is almost next door. China has its own Muslim problems within its borders. Which is the greater irritant - US support for Israel or Chinese suppression of Muslims? I suspect it's Israel on an ideological level but that China's sharp elbows, being a neighbor in the region and its policies towards actual Muslims will have greater real world impact in the future.

Randall Parker said at March 11, 2005 7:49 PM:


The Iranians have many nuclear facilities, some hidden, some under ground. The Israelis may not have the weapons needed to strike deeply buried facilities. The US might not even have conventional warheads that will do the job. Plus, the Israelis might not know where all the facilities are located. The US has more intelligence resources to try to find all the Iranian nuclear facilities. But it is not clear the US knows either.

So I would not be quick to assume the Israelis could pull it off if they wanted to.

Also, the Israelis would probably have to fly thru airspace that is US controlled to get to the Iranian targets. It would be hard for the US to be believed that it was not involved in the strike.

Randall Parker said at March 11, 2005 7:53 PM:


The Arabs care far more about Arab Muslims than about more distant Muslims. The Chinese control of Xinjiang does not matter as much to many Arabs as US control of Iraq or the presence of US troops in other Middle Eastern countries.

China will be able to take the side of the Arabs against Israel and America. China would have a more difficult time managing disputes between, say, Iran and Saudi Arabia. But China stands to have much better relations with the Arabs than the US has now.

Israel stands to lose from the rise of China. Israel also stands to lose from the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the Middle East.

Stephen said at March 11, 2005 8:05 PM:

Look at it from the perspective of an Iranian:

(1) Iran has suffered under US economic embargos since its citizens were unlucky enough to win a rebellion against a US stooge government. What's one more embargo?
(2) The US is a country on the other side of the world, and yet recently it has coincidentally invaded countries bordering Iran and is now looking in its direction.

If I were running Iran, I think I'd have three top priorities:

(1) find substitute customers to lessen the effect of the US embargoes and thereby grow my economy;
(2) encourage the creation of a new superpower to provide balance to the US;
(3) make sure I'm important enough to the new superpower that it'll protect me from US aggression;
(3) develop nuclear weapons to make sure that an invasion by anyone is going to be very expensive for the invader.

Just common sense.

stephen said at March 11, 2005 8:12 PM:

Oh, and another priority would be to learn to count how many priorities I had...

Roger said at March 11, 2005 9:27 PM:

Short of a nuke, there is no way the US could take out the Iranian Nuke program. The best strategy for dealing with the Mullahs is to discredit thier ideology and continue to press for democratization in the Mid East. I don't lose any sleep over a nuclear France. I would not be terribly concerned with a nuclear Iran IF their government was democraticly elected. Highly doubtful a democracy would nuke their neighbors or Israel. I don't see the US Striking Iran's nuclear facilities as it will not help the democratization project.

Stephen said at March 11, 2005 10:29 PM:

Roger, I don't think your comparison holds up because few of us also lose sleep over communist China's nuclear arsenal. The *Islamic Republic* of Pakistan is currently a military dictatorship and yet we don't lose sleep over them deciding to lob a few in our direction.

So, if non-democratic governments having nukes doesn't automatically cause us to lose sleep, what is so different about a nuclear armed Iran?

crush41 said at March 11, 2005 11:51 PM:

what is so different about a nuclear armed Iran?

It would cause Israel to lose sleep. And if Iran was to put Israel into a permanent slumber, then here in the US it would suddenly be very hard to sleep.

Roger said at March 12, 2005 12:48 AM:

The Mad Mullahs of Tehran have made numerous statements/threats against the US.

Any world leaders who so brazenly threaten the US, and seek the means to back up their threats, need to be tightly contained (near impossible with WMD), disarmed, or removed from office.

shakuhachi said at March 12, 2005 2:34 AM:

Randall said: The Iranians have many nuclear facilities, some hidden, some under ground. The Israelis may not have the weapons needed to strike deeply buried facilities. The US might not even have conventional warheads that will do the job. Plus, the Israelis might not know where all the facilities are located. The US has more intelligence resources to try to find all the Iranian nuclear facilities. But it is not clear the US knows either.

So I would not be quick to assume the Israelis could pull it off if they wanted to.
Randal, Israel recently aquired bunker buster bombs from the US which is why there is speculation that the attack will come from Israel. If there is information as to where the nuke facilities are located, then the US probably has it.

GUYK said at March 12, 2005 2:39 AM:

Randall-- concur excepting on intelligence operations. I suspect that the Israelis have much better intelligence on Iran than does the USA and allies. They may or may not share this intelligence as has been the case on other matters in the past. No doubt that any Israeli attack on Iran ( or any other Islamic country for that matter ) would be seen by the world as a USA backed action.

I do have a tremendous amount of respect for the Israelis. And, I also have some hestitation about their primary agenda. I figure that there is a faction in the Israeli government that would take over the mid-east if allowed. However, USA purse strings, (remember the seven day war of 1967?) have curtailed such efforts in the past. But, in any event the Israelis have no moral problems with a defensive first strike if they figure they have a chance of success. A nucleor Iran is a danger to them.

Another part of the issue is that a nucleor Iran is a threat to other muslem states in the area. Iranians are not Arabic nor Turkish and historically have has issues with both. The Persians fought the Turkish Ottaman empire for centuries and was only subdued and broght under semi-control by brute force. And, it wasn't that many years ago that Iraq and Iran were duking it out. Of course both claimed the other was the aggressor. Nucleor weapons could well be used by Iran to take over the oil bearing mid-east.

There may be a bright side down road. According to what I have read in the past young Iranians are itching for freedom that is not allowed by the mullah run government. A revolt to overthrow the mullahs could come about, especially if Iraq manages to form a workable elected government.

Randall Parker said at March 12, 2005 12:07 PM:


The reason the US has been developing nuclear bunker busters is that deeply located bunkers are hard to knock out with conventional bombs. So are all of Iran's underground facilities located where conventional bunker busters can reach them?


I think both Israeli military prowess and Israeli intelligence prowess have been greatly exaggerated. The military prowess has been exaggerated by the fact that the Israelis have only fought Arabs. Their intelligence prowess has been exaggerated in part due to their own promotion of it. They do not have the budgets, staff, and resources that the US intelligence agencies have.

The Israelis probably have agents in Iran. But that does not mean they know where all of Iran's nuclear facilities are located.

As for Iranians itching for freedom: I expect no help from that quarter. The Iranian people are not in a pre-revolutionary frame of mind. They say that one revolution didn't turn out well. The risk is too great to gamble that another would have a better outcome. Also see my post "What Do Polls Tell Us About The Iranian People?" Also, see my excerpting back in July 2004 a Council on Foreign Relations report that also claims that Iran is not in a pre-revolutionary state.

It is doubtful that an Iran revolution would even stop Iran's nuclear program. See my post "Iranian Nuclear Weapons Program Seen As Broadly Popular".

Stephen said at March 12, 2005 5:05 PM:

Iraq would have operated networks in Iran and I assume that its intel is now in US hands. Also, Israel would have human intel sources on the ground in Iran - something the US has traditionally distained in favour of electronic intel.

Iran has a surprisingly sophisticated political system. In a nutshell, its a multi-party state with parliamentary elections every four years, and the parliament manages the government and passes legislation. However things then get complicated because a bunch of oversite institutions have been created to ensure that all legislation conforms with both the constitution and with Islamic laws. Here's a BBC site that shows the relationships between the institutions (click on the institution to get info on its role): http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/shared/spl/hi/middle_east/03/iran_power/html/electorate.stm

PacRim Jim said at March 12, 2005 11:30 PM:

China needs petroleum to make products and transport them to America. Perhaps Americans should stop buying Chinese products, so that they China will not become depedent on Iranian oil. Sounds like a plan.

Tony Wheeler said at March 14, 2005 8:49 PM:

The Taiwanese give Westerners jaw-dropping gawks, turning their heads not to interrupt the enjoyment of their stare as you walk past. Their cousins, the northern Chinese (Tanjin) are more polite and divert their eyes when you catch them gawking at you. They don't even continue to gawk when in a group of 3, one had blond hair, another, red hair and myself with brown hair. I wonder if they will just stand gawking on the street at their taller cousins when they arrive by the bucketload during the invasion?

Tony Wheeler said at March 14, 2005 9:09 PM:

During the India-Pakistan stand-off in 2002, it seemed fairly obvious that the area of concern for potential war was actually along the western Pacific. Even if India and Pakistan had warred (nuclear capabilities acted as a deterrent), the Indians wouldnt be bothered continuing their aggression because they would need to sleep, eat something or suffer from "general lethargy".

In the Pacific the old hatreds will surface as China grows strong enough not to have to kow-tow to the US. Once China has enough cash not to listen to the US/EU/UN, they will do whatever they like. The Chinese and Koreans hate the Japs. Singaporeans are taught to hate the Japs because of WWII. The Malaysians have forgotten WWII and the Indonesians are too busy hating the West/US/Christians. The Japs hate everyone in Asia, well everyone in the world really, they even hate themselves.

After Tawian, China will invade "the little Japs" as they call them, to avenge the 1930's and to take their technology, then Vietnam just for face, having being beaten by them. I don't know how the Chinese and Koreans get along. China will also stir up the overseas Chinese in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.

This new Chinese empire will extend from parts of Indonesia (not Java) to Burma and will include all of Northeast Asia. They won't argue with Russians or Australians/NZ and have little business in Micronesia or Polynesia.

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