Wednesday, May 5, 2010

China in the catbird seat on Iran

China in the catbird seat on Iran
By Peter Lee

There were two major nuclear non-proliferation conferences in April, one in Washington and one in Tehran.
China attended both.

The Barack Obama administration was highly gratified that Chinese President Hu Jintao attended the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington. But China also sent an assistant foreign minister to the
Tehran International Conference on Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, where he pleased his hosts by reiterating a call for continued negotiation and diplomacy to resolve the Iran nuclear crisis.

After months of anxiety and uncertainty China finds itself in the catbird seat - and in a position to profit if President Obama's nuclear diplomacy succeeds or, as appears more likely, it fails. To a certain extent, both China and Israel have a shared interest
in forestalling a win-win resolution of the Iran nuclear crisis.

If the 30-year-old enmity between Washington and Tehran persists, Israel gets to preserve its special relationship as America's embattled and indispensable ally in the Middle East - and China can continue to enjoy its privileged position as Iran's only genuine superpower friend.

All China needs to do is balance its endorsement of Obama's ambitions for a world free of nuclear weapons with nuanced support of Iran's interests and the principle of multilateralism. China's current position on Iran comes close to recapitulating its strategy to establish itself as the key intermediary with an isolated North Korea, albeit on a bigger, more remote, and much riskier stage.

China has been able to accomplish this with considerable subtlety, even as the Obama administration has seen its bold outreach to the Muslim world deteriorate into an Israel-driven exercise in geopolitical kabuki. In late May, the Chinese leadership decided it did not want to exacerbate its fraught relations with the United States - already frayed over climate change,
currency, and Google - for the dubious cause of the Iranian nuclear program.

In exchange for a public US reaffirmation of the one-China policy, which Beijing will find useful as it confronts a new generation of opponents in
Tibet and Taiwan (and a private undertaking not to designate China as a currency manipulator for the time being), China agreed to participate in the Nuclear Security Summit and join the current round of Iranian sanction-writing at the UN Security Council.

An Iranian emissary immediately jetted to Beijing for discussions.

Judging from subsequent developments, the upshot was that Iran got the message that it would have to rely on its good works and not just the shield of a Chinese veto threat to avoid UN sanctions. In a subsequent charm offensive, Iranian representatives reasserted their allegiance to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), emphasized their willingness to negotiate, and attempted to resuscitate the moribund project to fuel the Tehran research reactor with Western assistance.

Complicating efforts to present him as a defiant pariah, Iran's President Mahmud Ahmadinejad spoke at the 2010 NPT Revision Conference in New York on May 3, calling for the fulfillment of the NPT's largely unmet promise of disarmament by the main nuclear powers.

Beyond the core group of anti-Iran hardliners, these efforts may have had more impact than the Obama administration is willing to admit.

Faced with Tehran's continual offers to negotiate the terms of the exchange of its low-enriched-uranium for fuel plates fabricated in
France for the Tehran Research Reactor, the Western declaration that the Iranians have offered "nothing new" is starting to sound a little threadbare. [1]

The hardliners may be forced to invoke the dreaded Western "impatience" - that dishonest emotion most famously deployed to short-circuit the unproductive inspections inside Iraq and jump-start the disastrous 2003 invasion - in order to rush sanctions through the UN Security Council and enable the harsher follow-on national sanctions that will permanently preempt the negotiation track.

Little wonder that French President Nicolas Sarkozy - the most enthusiastic member of the anti-Iran axis - used his trip to China to declare that the time for sanctions was, basically, now.

"The whole question is to examine at what point the absence of constructive dialogue must lead to sanctions in order to enhance constructive dialogue. Everyone is convinced that moment is approaching," said Sarkozy. [2]
Until now, Iran's most effective tactic has been to attack the Obama policy at its most vulnerable point: Israel.

Israel's sizable undeclared arsenal of nuclear warheads has always been an irritant in America's Middle Eastern diplomacy and its efforts to block Iran's nuclear program. The double standards dilemma has been most acute for President Obama, who designed his geopolitical strategy (and collected a Nobel Peace Prize) around the idea of reducing the threat of nuclear weapons through a combination of enhanced nuclear security, vigorous non-proliferation, and great-power nuclear disarmament under US leadership - anchored by universal adherence to the NPT.

From an NPT perspective, Israel doesn't compare favorably to Iran.

Iran is a signatory to the NPT and an active, if unhappy and not particularly candid, participant in the IAEA safeguards program. Its current inventory of nuclear material amounts to less than 2 tons of radioactive dirt, 11 pounds (4.99 kilograms) of uranium enriched to just below the 20% threshold (equivalent to less than three pounds of highly enriched uranium if fully enriched), and 0 pounds of bomb-grade material.

Israel is not a signatory to the NPT. It joined the IAEA, but does not participate in any safeguards program, apparently regarding its membership primarily as a useful opportunity to pitch negative intelligence concerning Islamic nuclear ambitions over the Intelligence Directorate's transom. It maintains an undeclared arsenal of at least 100 warheads - perhaps as many as 400. [3]

To build this arsenal, Israel evaded export controls, allegedly diverting heavy water supplied by
Norway for peaceful uses to its weapons program and illegally obtaining hundreds of US krytons (high speed switches). [4]

And Israel has proliferated. It provided technical assistance to the apartheid regime of South Africa that resulted in the construction of six nuclear warheads that could be dropped on South Africa's many regional antagonists. It was alleged but never officially confirmed that the Israeli government had also agreed to supply six specially fitted ballistic missiles to carry the warheads, and that South Africa's sole nuclear test was a joint South African/Israeli affair. [5]

Perhaps recalling its own experience, as late as May 2009 Israel contemptuously asserted that the NPT "has failed to prevent any country that wanted to from obtaining nuclear weapons". [6]

In 2009, Obama apparently hoped to square the circle by managing rapprochement with Iran through public and secret outreach and progress on fueling the Tehran research reactor, and subsequently placing pressure on Israel to enter into the global non-proliferation regime.

Israel received its public wake-up call in May 2009, when Assistant US Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller called on Israel by name to join the NPT while neglecting the obligatory condemnation of Iran. In September 2009, the waning days of Mohamed ElBaradei's tenure as IAEA director general, Israel's critics at the IAEA were finally able to push through a resolution calling on Israel to join the NPT and enter into a safeguards agreement.

Thanks to a fortuitous combination of Iran's domestic political and leadership crisis, US paranoia, and its own assiduous lobbying, the Tehran research reactor deal foundered and Israel was able to reverse the political tide by early 2010.

Obama was forced to divert his attention from Iran diplomacy to appease pro-Israel critics in the public sphere, congress, his own party, and even his own administration by repeatedly affirming the special character of the US-Israeli relationship while absorbing high profile insults such as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's refusal to attend the Nuclear Security Summit.
At present, the promise of meaningful outreach to the Islamic world mediated by reliable allies such as Egypt seems unlikely to be honored in the breach. Egypt is expected to insist at the May 2010 NPT conference that negotiations including Israel begin to make the Middle East into a nuclear-weapons free zone. As Haaretz reports, the Western powers are willing to support the conference - as long as there are no negotiations and nothing happens:

One Western envoy said Egypt's insistence on a conference with a negotiating mandate was the main "sticking point," while another expressed the hope that Egypt would compromise during intensive negotiations on the issue in the coming weeks. One Western diplomat said the Israelis were "understandably reluctant" to take part, even if the conference's outcome would be merely symbolic. [7]
A measure of Obama's difficulties can also be seen in the release of the long-gestating Nuclear Posture Review on April 10. Intended to serve as the blueprint for the president's post-nuclear weapons world, the document bullet-pointed US doctrine for the use of nuclear weapons, with this new and memorable addition:

The United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the NPT and in compliance with their nuclear nonproliferation obligations. [8]
The anonymous author of this clause - which reads suspiciously as it was tacked on at the last minute - wins no points for style or logic.

Since the overall doctrine permits use of nuclear weapons "only ... in extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States or its allies and partners", the final clause - with the bizarre permissive for "threatening" - looks like a carve-out, reserving the right to mete out additional nuclear punishment to nations that don't meet US standards of NPT good citizenship.

Elsewhere in the document Iran and North Korea are specifically called out as targets under this policy. But not Israel, Pakistan, or India, three nations that have nuclear weapons today but are not members of the NPT. This leaves the perhaps inadvertent impression that the safest course for a prospective nuclear weapons state is to run away from the NPT as fast as its proliferating legs will carry it.

China was quick to pounce.

On April 22, Xu Guangyu, a retired PLA general who frequently presents the modern, rational face of the Chinese military to the Western media, published a description of China's nuclear doctrine in Liberation Daily entitled "Deterrence Not Threats". [9]

As Xu spun the article in a follow-up phone call with Reuters [10], the piece was intended to reassure the United States, India, and Japan that China's relatively modest nuclear arsenal was designed purely to serve as a deterrent, to be used only in a second strike in the event of a nuclear attack against China.

All well and good, but the title of the article itself indicated that China was also needling the United States on the contradictions inherent in its pursuit of a universal NPT regime but selective sanctions against Iran and North Korea only.

In contrast to the US NPR, Xu described China's nuclear posture as no-first-use under any circumstances and, instead of a carve-out, added a reaffirmation that stood in marked contrast to the US declaration of its right to threaten refractory non-nuclear NPT states:

"China ... unconditionally promises that it will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against any non-nuclear state or region."
Meanwhile, barely a day goes by without China calling for continued negotiations and diplomacy to resolve the Iran crisis, thereby burnishing its credentials as the champion protecting the developing world against selective US nuclear enforcement and making the sanctions job more difficult.

It remains to be seen if Iran's fractured leadership can summon the political will to make the concessions at this critical time that could defang the sanctions drive: suspend enrichment and accept the one year lag between shipping out its uranium and receiving the fuel plates for the Tehran research reactor back from France.

Even if they do, it is an open question as to whether the Obama administration could summon the political will to accept Iranian concessions, instead of pursuing the policy apparently supported by Israel and France: going ahead with sanctions that can only be removed after the satisfactory completion of unlimited adversarial inspections.

On one level, the arguments are about very little.

Obama and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates have no appetite for a third land war in Asia. There is also little advantage for Iran in defying the West and occupying the center of the US nuclear bull's eye for the sake of its nascent nuclear weapons capability. As for Israel, as the Indian precedent demonstrates, the United States and its allies are perfectly happy to negotiate and impose exceptions for friendly nuclear powers on the non-proliferation regime.

Presumably Israel would find little to be ashamed of and much to be proud of if portions of its nuclear industry were revealed to the gaze of the IAEA. One suspects that Israel is less concerned with the privacy of its nukes than the unwelcome possibility that it might have to treat Iran as a legitimate rival in the competition for America's attention and support in the Middle East.

Nevertheless, to date Israel has been successful in its adamant refusal to smooth the way for Obama's Iran diplomacy by publicly entertaining the possibility of Israeli participation in the non-proliferation regime. Defense Minister Ehud Barak marked the conclusion of the Nuclear Security Summit - at which Israel was represented only by a minor government functionary instead of a head of state - by declaring, "To our friends and our allies we say 'there is no room to pressure Israel into signing the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty'." [11]

Indeed, the sequence originally envisioned by the Obama administration appears to have been reversed.

It looks as if the price for Israel's participation in the non-proliferation regime - perhaps signing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty or joining the Fissile Material Cut Off initiative, if not immediately adhering to the NPT/IAEA safeguards regime - is "crippling sanctions" against Iran up front. Perhaps the sanctions should be properly understood as "crippling" because they would cripple US-Iran rapprochement rather than the Iranian nuclear program.

If the sanctions process rolls on to its logical conclusion of unproductive confrontation, China can look forward to serving as Iran's primary superpower ally - and benefit as Obama's attempt to provide renewed American leadership in the Middle East dissolves into the old division and rancor instead.

At the same time Beijing can present itself to Washington as a supporter of the new US nuclear security doctrine and mediator in the festering Iran mess - with the threat that it can abate its enthusiasm if US China-bashing gets out of hand.

That's called being in the catbird seat.

1. Iran wants to reopen talks about a nuclear fuel swap, Guardian, April 20, 2010.
2. Sarkozy stresses Iran sanctions,, April 28, 2010.
3. Nuclear Weapons, Federation of American Scientists.
4. Nuclear Weapons Program, Federation of American Scientists.
5. Nuclear Weapons Program, Federation of American Scientists.
6. 'Making Israel sign nuclear treaty won't be miracle cure for world ills',, May 7, 2009.
7. Egypt seeks UN pressure on Israel over nuclear arms,, April 20, 2010.
8. Nuclear Posture Review Report, US Department of Defense, April 2010
9. (in Chinese)
10. China military paper spells out nuclear arms stance, Reuters, April 22, 2010.
11. Israel Still Not Prepared to Join NPT, Global Security Newswire, April 15, 2010.

Peter Lee writes on East and South Asian affairs and their intersection with US foreign policy.