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The Eastern Solution

Does the road to a nuclear-free Iran run through Beijing?

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Starting from the premise that using means short of a military strike to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program is preferable, we could do worse than to consider how China could figure in. One of five veto-wielding members of the Security Council, owner of the second-largest economy in the world, and the globe’s top rising power, it maintains significant energy interests in Iran, as a consequence of which it (along with Russia) has done a great deal to protect the Islamic Republic from harsher international sanctions. Colum Lynch reports that if you are holding your breath for Russia and China to let sanctions go through in the wake of yesterday’s damning report, well, you should probably exhale. After the report was released, China publicly urged Iran to show “flexibility” and “sincerity,” whatever that means. That China seems unwilling to take a stronger stand is a real shame, because, as Ilan I. Berman writes on today’s Times op-ed page, “A concerted Chinese crackdown on firms involved in nuclear commerce with Iran would effectively cripple Tehran’s atomic program.”

Berman’s essay lays out how China and Iran benefit from their bilateral relationship—Iran gets technology, financing, and diplomatic protection; China gets the black stuff (and also liquefied natural gas and other energy sources). He proposes that the United States take a hard line on China and several of its companies that are absolutely crucial to Iran’s ability to operate its economy, much less its atomic program: targeted sanctions, asset freezes, and the like. He notes that a U.S. Treasury undersecretary was in Beijing in September to disclose precisely this threat, but that there so far has seemed little willpower to follow through.

It’s not bad thinking. And it puts one in mind of what Israel has been doing. Israel, which lacks the United States’ strategic leverage, has attempted to persuade China that it is really in its own interest—own economic interest (money still talks with the nominally Communist Chinese leadership)—to peacefully work to prevent Iran from getting a bomb. Nearly two years ago, a high-ranking Israeli delegation quietly visited and suggested that it could be destabilizing if Iran were to move close to achieving a nuclear bomb, because, y’know, a country in Israel’s position might feel an urge to do something about that, and the world energy markets are not liable to respond kindly to such an event, hypothetically speaking and all. Notably, the two leading delegates were Moshe Ya’alon, a Netanyahu loyalist in the Cabinet, and chief Israeli central banker Stanley Fischer, an economist who is perhaps the most revered Israeli figure in elite circles around the world.

Apparently it was not the evidence Israel presented then of Iran’s non-peaceful intentions that caught the Chinese leaders’ notice, but rather the threat of Israel’s own non-peaceful intentions. (Which explains how Israel could honestly claim the importance of the threat of military action while at the same time insisting that the Iranian regime is irrational: The mullahs aren’t Israel’s only audience.) There seems to be an opportunity for the United States and Israel to join forces here in persuading China to come over more fully to their side—which would be a gigantic coup. It’s just this sort of creative diplomacy that needs to be thought up and sincerely implemented before we move on to a less desirable option. When people say that a military strike should only be a “last resort,” that has to mean that it comes after things like this.

To Stop Iran, Lean On China [NYT]
Israel Make Case to China for Iran Sanctions [NYT]
Israel to Push China on Iran Sanctions [Haaretz]
Related: Don’t Bet on U.N. Sanctions Over the IAEA Report [FP Turtle Bay]
Earlier: With Iran, Uncertainty Is Only Certainty

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One would hope to find a solution here, and I think that, generally, if you oppose sanctions then you are supporting war. Which is why I believe that, contrary to appearances, France pushed for war in Iraq.

Unfortunately, China is holding about 8% of our national debt, which reduces our leverage with them significantly. On the other hand, we are big importers of their products.

A cynical scenario would have China feigning indifference to the Iranian nuclear program, all the while knowing that the U.S. will do the dirty work on their behalf. In the wake of an attack, they might just step in as an ostensibly benevolent power, establishing even closer ties with Iran, and helping them rebuild their reactor technology.

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The Eastern Solution

Does the road to a nuclear-free Iran run through Beijing?

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