WASHINGTON – The rapidly growing relationship between Iran and China has begun to undermine international efforts to ensure that Iran cannot subvert a peaceful energy program to develop a nuclear arsenal, U.S. and European officials say.
The Bush administration and its allies said last week that they plan to seek new U.N. sanctions against Iran, after the International Atomic Energy Agency said Iranian officials had given inadequate answers to questions about past nuclear activities.
But U.S. and European officials now worry more about a Chinese veto than about opposition from Russia, which has previously assisted and defended the Iranian nuclear energy program.
U.S. and European officials charged Friday that Beijing is deliberately stalling to protect its economic interests.
“China needs to play a more responsible role on Iran, needs to recognize that China is going to be very dependent in the decades ahead on Middle East oil, and therefore, China, for its own development and its own purposes, is going to need a stable Middle East, and that an Iran armed with nuclear weapons is not a prescription for stability in the Middle East,” national security adviser Stephen Hadley told reporters Friday.
China gets at least 14 percent of its imported oil from Iran, making it China’s largest supplier and worth as much as $7 billion this year, according to David Kirsch, a manager at PFC Energy. Tehran in turn gets arms systems from Beijing, including ballistic and cruise missiles and technical assistance for Tehran’s indigenous missile program. Dozens of Chinese companies also are engaged in several other industries.
On the eve of Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi’s visit to Tehran last week for talks with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Beijing suggested that it could reject U.S.-orchestrated efforts for a new resolution.
The United States last month imposed its own tough new sanctions against Iran’s military, banks and industries, in part out of frustration over stalled efforts to pass a third U.N. resolution. Two earlier U.N. resolutions, passed in December and March, call for further action if Iran does not comply in 60 days with demands that it shut down its uranium enrichment, which can be used both for energy and weapons. The latest U.S. diplomacy has dragged on for six months.
But the new Tehran-Beijing relationship is likely to further delay or dilute international diplomacy, because the two powers share a strategic vision, experts say. Both are determined to find ways to contain unchallenged U.S. power and a unipolar world, said Ilan Berman, vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council.
China’s voracious appetite for energy has cemented the relationship, U.S. experts say.
“Iran has become the engineer of China’s economic growth. It may not be like Saudi Arabia is to the U.S. economy, but it’s close,” Berman said.
“We’re presenting China with an untenable proposition. We’re asking them to unilaterally divest from Iran and not offering them energy alternatives. This is not sustainable for policymakers whose predominant priority is to maintain and expand their country’s growth,” Berman said.