BEIJING – With the dispute over Iran’s controversial nuclear program moving this week to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), the stage is set for a perilous confrontation between the Islamic republic and the international community a showdown that not only Tehran but also world powers like China and Russia have fought to avoid.
While reporting Tehran to the UNSC is being executed in the name of preventing nuclear proliferation, China has voiced fears that the whole nonproliferation system has been destabilized by the freshly inked nuclear deal between the United States and India.
"The United States’ making an exception to accommodate India, driven by geopolitical considerations, has sent repercussions through the international nonproliferation infrastructure," Hu Shisheng, a fellow of South Asian Studies at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations wrote in the China Daily Mar. 7.
"The double standards will very likely complicate the nuclear issues of Iran and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea all the more," he argued. "Now, the international community is presented with a big question: how can the effectiveness and binding power of the nonproliferation system be guaranteed?"
The official line from Beijing on the nuclear cooperation agreement signed between Washington and New Delhi, last week, has been more restrained, but the Chinese foreign ministry has questioned the gains for the global nuclear nonproliferation efforts.
Foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang said the deal came at a time when the international community was working to enhance the authority and effectiveness of the international nonproliferation regime. Nuclear cooperation between the United States and India must conform to the rules of the global nonproliferation regime, he emphasized.
Speaking of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), Qin Gang said: "As a signatory country, China hopes non-signatory countries will join it as soon as possible as non-nuclear weapons states, thereby contributing to strengthening the international nonproliferation regime."
The remark was clearly aimed at New Delhi, which without signing the NPT has now been given the rights enjoyed by the members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, and also the five nuclear powers.
Under the deal sealed between U.S. President George W. Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi, India retained the right to deny UN inspectors access to its fast-breeder reactors capable of producing weapons-grade fissile material.
As India didn’t agree to cap its production, it means there could be unlimited expansion of its nuclear arsenal, sparking fears this could lead to a new regional arms race.
Critics of the deal have charged the U.S. with gambling away its chances of success in the global campaign to limit the spread of nuclear weapons for the questionable benefit of counterbalancing China.
It was a point emphasized in an editorial in the Chinese Communist Party’s flagship publication, the People’s Daily, this week: "The United States, accustomed to view problems with Cold War mentality and from the perspective of geopolitics," said the editorial, "saw the power of India" as being able to "help it achieve balance among powers in Asia."
The paper went on to warn that there could be consequences for the "two deadlocked nuclear talks [with Iran and North Korea] and the nonproliferation system".
Over the past two years, China has been trying to prevent both its allies Iran and North Korea from being referred to the UNSC but has found it increasingly hard as all major world powers from France to Japan had started thinking aloud about the consequences of allowing Iran to build a nuclear weapon.
Although China has huge oil stakes in the Middle Eastern country, in recent months Beijing has sided with the U.S. and Europe in their combined efforts to curtail Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Chinese foreign ministry officials have called on Tehran to observe all obligations that go with the NPT so that the crisis can be resolved without moving it to the UNSC.
China, which has veto power in the UNSC, would be forced to make an uncomfortable choice between its international standing and economic interests should developments at the council lead to a vote on sanctions against Tehran.
Agreeing to UN sanctions would potentially destroy the value of many investments Beijing has made. In Iran, where U.S. companies are prohibited from investing more than $20 million annually, Chinese companies have signed long-term contracts valued at $200 billion, making China Iran’s biggest oil and gas customer.
But encouragement of Tehran in its controversial nuclear program would make China appear an outcast in the eyes of the White House and the international community.
Hoping to avoid clear-cut choices, Beijing has argued vigorously that continued negotiations are best, if not the only, way to resolve the nuclear dispute in Iran, as well as the one involving North Korea.
A similar appeal came just hours before the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) ended its meeting on the Iranian nuclear program in Vienna, sending the file to the UNSC in New York.
"The Iranian nuclear issue is at a critical juncture," Zhang Yan, director of the arms control department of the Chinese foreign ministry, told the IAEA board members. There exists both a risk of deterioration and chances of improvement, he said.
"The key is whether all concerned parties choose dialogue instead of confrontation. China believes that the continuation of the diplomatic efforts remains the wise option for the solution of the Iranian nuclear issue," Zhang concluded.