Monday, June 05, 2006

U.S. counts on China as mediator with Iran

Right after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced that the United States would participate in joint negotiations if Iran fully and verifiably suspended its uranium enrichment activities, President Bush called Chinese President Hu Jintao and briefed him on this new initiative. Why would Bush bother to communicate with China if the United States would only join the United Kingdom, France and Germany (the EU3) in negotiations with Iran? Maybe because, after failing to gain China's support in coercing Iran through the U.N. Security Council, the Bush administration now places hope with China to persuade Iran to drop its nuclear program through soft influence. READ MORE

It is hoped that the Bush administration has finally recognized China's real strength in dealing with Iran. It is not China's veto power in the U.N. Security Council over sanctions against Iran that matters, but that China's balanced and perceived fair diplomacy could be an influence on Iran. The key to China's diplomacy is to hold a firm line on nonproliferation while avoiding prejudging Iran's nuclear intentions. China emphasizes Iran's right to develop peaceful nuclear programs, while urging Iran to put its nuclear program under the watch of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

In addition to talks with Iran, China joined the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and the United States in mediation when the issue escalated in January 2006.

China opposes resorting to sanctions or the use of force against Iran, believing this will only provoke Iran unnecessarily. Instead, China urged all parties to reduce their saber rattling. Such an approach leaves room to maneuver to manage the crisis. The final solution has to be reconciling the seemingly irreconcilable relationship between the United States and Iran. The Bush administration seems to have embarked on the right track by opening that possibility. After all, the consequence of sanctions or military strikes against Iran will go far beyond what those means themselves imply. They project turmoil in the world oil market and a messier Middle East. China predicts, worries about and is trying to avoid that prospect.

China's position on a peaceful solution to Iran's quest for nuclear power benefits all, instead of just protecting its oil supply, as perceived by many. That is why China's approach is shared by some Muslim and Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Jordan and Indonesia.

The United States still looks to China to address the problem. China is approachable by both sides in the dispute, and it has both hard and soft power at hand to promote its views. Therefore, China becomes the open, flexible and formidable middle ground and could play a constructive role in avoiding a full-scale crisis and facilitating a potential solution.

The spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry said China welcomed the United States' offer to negotiate. The government is adopting a wait-and-see attitude. Iran has dismissed the U.S. offer, as the preconditions were unacceptable. China -- a veteran mediator at diffusing the North Korean nuclear stalemate, but unable to move the issue further because neither Washington nor Pyongyang is willing to compromise on substantive issues -- understands perhaps more than others the importance of substance over gestures.

If the U.S. initiative is intended to fail for the purpose of eventually coercing Iran to drop its nuclear ambitions, there is no way that Washington could win Beijing's support on either persuading or pressing Tehran. As in any crisis, an exit plan is essential here. This is true for both Iran and the international community.

Iran should realize that throwing out more provocative rhetoric could only make it harder for China to maintain its diplomatic balance. The United States should let up on pressuring China to coerce Iran, thus keeping China as a viable bridge for dialogue and persuasion.

China risks losing its credibility as a mediator, if it overreaches. Therefore, at this stage, China should continue to maintain its position: No nukes, no sanctions, but continued flexible dialogue. Otherwise, should either Iran or the United States up the ante, the international community will lose an avenue to mitigate the crisis.

Anne Wu is a fellow with the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.