After months of negotiating, the United Nations Security Council voted to impose new sanctions on Iran for its nuclear program. But despite the United States efforts to make the sanctions crippling, they were watered down. This is in large part because of China.
As one of the five permanent members of the UNSC, China wields veto power. This means that even if a proposal gets the required 9 of 15 affirmative votes, any of the permanent members can stop it by using their veto. And while none of the permanent members want to see a nuclear armed Iran, a deeper study of the situation reveals that it’s not that simple.
After the overthrow of the Shah during the Iranian revolution the country became a theocratic republic under Ayatollah Khomeini that follows Sharia law. Islam drives everything in Iran, from its culture to foreign policy.
The controversy over Iran’s nuclear ambitions comes from suspicion over their intentions. While Iranian authorities say they only want it for energy, most governments think their goal is to develop nuclear weapons. The benefits are numerous for Iran, and they’ve seemed to have taken a calculated risk in regards to timing. With the strained US military’s commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan going on 10 years and many of the countries making up NATO eager to return home, a war with Iran seems unlikely.
More troubling is the religious overtones Iran’s conservative president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has taken when discussing foreign and domestic policy. In order to understand it a little background information is needed.
90% of the Iranian population is of the Shiite denomination, a branch of Islam that believes the descendants of Muhammad, known as the Imams, have spiritual and political authority over the community. Shiite Muslims believe that the 12th Imam will return after a period of immense war and bloodshed, otherwise known as the apocalypse, and usher in a new era of peace and justice to the world. Ahmadinejad believes he can hasten the return of the 12th Imam by creating apocalyptic conditions. It’s not difficult to see why many view a nuclear armed Iran as a nightmare scenario.
But there are more pragmatic reasons Iran wants to acquire nuclear weapons – it evens the playing field. Much of the Islamic world views the West as imposing its worldview on them. Combined with what’s seen as US bullying, and the Middle East is rife with anti-Western sentiment. A nuclear Iran would have more clout in negotiations.
So where does China fit into all of this?
China imports 15% of its oil from Iran, up 22% from a year earlier. With its massive population and rising energy needs, it’s safe to say that China’s oil imports from Iran will continue to grow. In addition China has recently passed the EU as Iran’s largest trading partner, with figures totally over 36 billion USD. And finally, China has invested heavily in developing Iranian oil fields, further entangling the two economies. So the picture becomes a bit clearer: agreeing to tough sanctions against Iran would be like China shooting itself in the foot. This is particularly important for China.
When Mao’s communists defeated the ruling Kuomintang in 1950 they took control of mainland China and began a period of one party rule that has spanned to present day. This rule has been challenged occasionally, most notably during the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident, when government officials massacred thousands of pro-democracy students and intellectuals. Since then China’s government has tightened its grip on political dissent, stating that its most important goal is maintaining social harmony. This is code for oppressing its own people because they fear revolution, as they should. Today China is 1 of only 5 communist countries in the world, with a heavily censored press, restrictions on religion, and a history of human rights abuses.
China’s government fears its own people for good reason – they know if their citizens ever rise up the party is over. Their hope is that social complaints will be drowned out by economic prosperity. And now we see part of why Iran is so important to China’s government: they have to keep things moving forward. Shortages in oil will upset social harmony and stir unrest. For China’s ruling communist party it’s a matter of self preservation. But there’s another aspect of this alliance, a more far reaching objective that both countries are eager to reach.
As the sole super power of the world, the US has enjoyed economic and militaristic dominance that is the envy of its rivals. As a result China has had to operate around the US during its rise, importing their resources and forming alliances with countries the US shuns. Before, countries like Iran that resist US hegemony didn’t have anyone to turn to. They were isolated by the international community. But with the emergence of China, a country that is eager to develop before it takes on the responsibilities of a super power, Iran has found a partner in undermining US supremacy. Others are catching on. North Korea has always been supported by China, but now we’re seeing countries like Myanmar, Venezuela and Sudan using China as a way to go around US authority. But China is playing a dangerous game, especially with Iran.
It’s strange to call Chinese politicians shortsighted. Usually they’re masters at playing for the long term, but in terms of Iran the end doesn’t justify the means. Islamic fundamentalist’s, like the rulers of Iran, seek to bring about an Islamic divine order, an order not compatible with atheistic China. When politics are fueled by religious fundamentalism it’s highly combustible and unsustainable.
The 2009 Iranian elections saw widespread protests over what was seen as a rigged re-election for Ahmadinejad. Protesters were predictably quelled. But while the images were horrifying, it was inspiring to see such courage in the face of overwhelming brutality. Maybe someday we’ll see a moderate government in Iran. Until then, all eyes are on China.