Israel’s Attack on the Turkish Ships Complicates China’s Balancing Act on Iran and the United States
by Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

President Obama’s already diminishing chances to “steamroll” the Iran-Turkey-Brazil Joint Declaration by ramming new sanctions against the Islamic Republic through the United Nations Security Council during the next few weeks got even smaller this morning, when Israeli naval commandos stormed Turkish-flagged ships in international waters off Gaza, killing at least 16 people in the process.  Turkey — currently a non-permanent member of the Security Council — promptly asked that the Council convene in emergency session; this session convened in New York at 1 pm today.

Prime Minister Erdo?an’s government will surely demand a response from the Council which the Obama Administration will just as surely be unwilling to support.  Even before this incident, during a visit to Brasilia this past weekend, Erdo?an publicly criticized the United States and its European partners for refusing to take a “fair, sincere, and honest approach” to the Iranian nuclear issue.  If the United States declines to condemn Israel for attacking Turkish vessels on the high seas and killing civilians in the process, but still insists that the Security Council sanction Iran over enriching uranium, one can only imagine the reaction of Erdo?an’s government — and, for that matter, many other governments around the world — to such an egregious display of hypocrisy and double standards.

The Israeli attack on the Turkish ships comes at a particularly inopportune moment, from Washington’s perspective, as the Obama Administration was already losing support among key international players — most notably China — for moving rapidly to impose new sanctions on Iran.

Since the announcement of the Iran-Turkey-Brazil Joint Declaration in Tehran on May 17 and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s announcement the next day that the permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany had agreed on the (incomplete) text of a draft sanctions resolution, we have been deeply skeptical that China would be willing, in the end, to ram a new sanctions resolution through the Council without giving the Joint Declaration a chance to “work.”

Certainly, the proximity of these two developments has complicated Beijing’s ongoing effort to balance the various interests it has at stake in the Iranian nuclear issue — e.g., China’s increasingly strategic ties to Iran, its crucially important relationship with the United States, its place as a permanent member of the Security Council, and its commitment to dealing with international problems through diplomacy.  (For a fuller discussion, see the monograph on Sino-Iranian relations that we co-published last year, through the Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies).  Along with these other interests, Chinese decision-makers must now also consider China’s place as a recognized leader of the “global South,” and the potentially negative impact on its interests and international standing if Beijing is seen to be helping the Obama Administration “shut down” the Brazilian-Turkish diplomatic initiative with Iran.

That this balancing act is extremely sensitive for Beijing is evident in China’s public posture.  As we have predicted for some time, China extracted substantial substantive concessions from the Obama Administration regarding the specific measures contemplated in the draft sanctions resolution.  As Tony Karon reported last week,

Not only has Beijing watered down the sanctions to be adopted by the Security Council in order to ensure they don’t restrain China from expanding its already massive economic ties with Iran; Chinese analysts also claim that, in the course of a protracted series of negotiations with Washington, their government also won undertakings from Washington to exempt Chinese companies from any U.S. unilateral sanctions that punish third-country business partners with the Islamic Republic.

China was perhaps understandably reluctant to “stiff” the United States on Iran sanctions immediately after the extent of the concessions it won from the Obama Administration was publicly revealed in the draft text of the new sanctions resolution.  Since May 17-18, official China has been, to say the least, restrained in its public pronouncements on next steps with the Joint Declaration and in the Security Council.  Indeed, beyond reiterating China’s support for the “two-track” approach and saying vaguely positive things about the Joint Declaration, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesmen have not offered much insight into the government’s thinking.

But, on May 29, China Daily published what we believe is an important Op Ed, “Iran Deserves a Break,” by Zhai Dequan, deputy secretary-general of the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, which is linked to the Foreign Ministry and various government-sponsored research institutions working on international security and foreign policy issues.  While, at an official level, China continues working to avoid a public confrontation with the United States over diplomatic “next steps” on the Iranian nuclear issue, we believe that this Op Ed supports our hypothesis about where Beijing will ultimately come down:

The recent tripartite agreement on nuclear-material swapping among Iran, Turkey and Brazil shows that influential countries other than major Western powers have started helping resolve sensitive global issues.  Such efforts should be applauded and encouraged, especially because last year, US President Barack Obama said that instead of depending on America alone, other countries, too, should try and resolve world issues.

Before the tripartite agreement was signed, the UN Security Council was expected to adopt a resolution imposing fresh sanctions on Iran for refusing to swap its low-enriched uranium with another country.  Now, Iran has agreed on the location, time and amount of low-enriched uranium to be swapped and has submitted the list of provisions to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), although it does not fully conform to the [Agency’s] conditions.

Since the situation has changed, pre-planned punitive actions, too, should be altered accordingly, meaning there is no longer any rationality in imposing further sanctions on Iran.  (emphasis added)

The Op Ed then appears to challenge directly the Obama Administration’s renewed insistence that Iran must suspend uranium enrichment in order to avoid new sanctions:

Since Iran is party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and is legally entitled to peaceful use of nuclear power, it is preposterous to say that it should not process nuclear materials to generate electricity.  (again, emphasis added)

The writer also appears to caution both Russia and the United States against trying to “shift the goalposts” on Iran after the fact:

US and Russian leaders had hinted that the participation of Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Tehran on May 17 was the last chance for Iran to avoid fresh UN sanctions.  The tripartite nuclear deal was reached after strenuous efforts, and Iran earnestly hopes it would help it to avoid further sanctions.  So high is Iran’s hope that it has threatened to scrap the deal and go it alone if the UN Security Council still goes ahead with its plan to impose fresh sanctions. . . .   Sanctions, actually, are a way of dragging a country to the talks’ table.  Hence, they should not be imposed randomly.

And, just in case anyone missed the bottom line, here is the conclusion:

As for the Iranian nuclear issue, it can be settled only through dialogue, interaction and cooperation, and hence the UN Security Council should not impose fresh sanctions against the country, because it may only succeed in causing suffering to the Iranian people.

The Islamic Republic, of course, has so far carried out its specific obligations under the Joint Declaration — in particular, it has provided an official letter to the IAEA Director General, Yukiya Amano, indicating its commitment to the Declaration’s terms.  (It is now up to the “Vienna Group” — the IAEA, along with the United States, Russia, and France — to respond to the Iranian letter.)

As long as Iran continues to act in what China and other important non-Western players consider a reasonable way regarding implementation of the Joint Declaration, the sanctions train is not leaving the station — no matter how many times Secretary Clinton and America’s UN ambassador, Susan Rice, announce “All aboard.”

And, if the Obama Administration continues to fix on suspension of enrichment as its main substantive argument for not working with the Joint Declaration, it will lose the “P-5” unity it claims to have forged.

Moreover, if the Obama Administration continues refusing to work with the Joint Declaration and pushes for sanctions at the same time it blocks any meaningful response to Israel’s latest provocation, it will not only “lose” on the Iranian nuclear issue — it will severely damage America’s already strained credibility as an international leader.

Flynt Leverett directs the Iran Project at the New America Foundation, where he is also a Senior Research Fellow.  Additionally, he teaches at Pennsylvania State University’s School of International Affairs.  Hillary Mann Leverett is CEO of Strategic Energy and Global Analysis (STRATEGA), a political risk consultancy.  In September 2010, she will also take up an appointment as Senior Lecturer and Senior Research Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.  This article was first published in The Race for Iran on 31 May 2010 under a Creative Commons license.

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