China’s role in the Iran nuclear deal

July 21, 2015 08:54
Wang Yi (right) has a word with his French counterpart, Laurent Fabius, at the talks in Vienna that led to the Iran nuclear deal last week. Photo: AFP

The historic agreement reached by the world’s major powers and Iran on that country’s nuclear program was the biggest diplomatic achievement of US President Barack Obama's administration in six years.

China was one of the P5+1 countries negotiating with Iran.

What was its role?

China’s position on Iran has always been quite different from that of the United States.

While Washington pushed for sanctions to punish Iran and to bring it to the negotiating table, Beijing and Moscow were generally opposed to both economic sanctions and to maintaining an arms embargo.

Beijing itself had in times past been accused by Washington of nuclear proliferation activities, and Chinese state-owned companies were repeatedly threatened with sanctions, including for activities involving Iran.

While the US maintained a trade embargo on Iran and imposed financial sanctions on countries that purchased Iranian crude oil, China continued to do business with Iran.

In mid-2013, the US announced that several countries, including China and India, had been exempted from financial sanctions because they had reduced their purchases of Iranian oil.

Evidently, however, all the P5+1 countries – Britain, China, France, Russia and the US plus Germany – were opposed to Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons.

Their willingness to set aside differences on other issues was vital in presenting Iran with a united front of world powers.

Russia, for example, which has been sanctioned on the Ukraine issue, did not attempt to link that with Iran.

In fact, according to a senior US official who briefed the media when the accord was announced, the Russians, “to their credit, have been very focused”.

The unnamed official said: “I think many people believed … we wouldn’t be able to hold on to the arms restrictions, we wouldn’t be able to get any missile restrictions whatever. And indeed, we accomplished both.”

And this was despite the fact that “two of our partners believed that there should be zero arms restrictions from Day 1”, which was Iran’s position.

The official did not name them, but the two were evidently Russia and China.

The lifting of United Nations sanctions is expected to result in many countries, very much including China, seeking business opportunities in Iran.

Such opportunities will elude Americans, since the United States will maintain its trade embargo on Iran, with certain exceptions, such as food and the export of civilian aircraft parts to that country.

After the accord was announced, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that, with the lifting of sanctions, Iran’s relations with China and other countries would develop.

In particular, he voiced the hope that Iran would take part in China’s “one belt, one road” plan to revive the historical Silk Road, which he said would bring new vitality to the Iranian economy.

Wang also noted that China had played an important role in the negotiations and would play a key part in the implementation of the deal with regard to the modification of the heavy water reactor in Arak.

The Arak reactor had been described as a possible “pathway” to a nuclear weapon for Iran using weapons-grade plutonium.

Under the deal, the reactor will be redesigned so that it cannot produce weapons-grade plutonium.

Meanwhile, all the spent fuel rods will be sent out of the country.

The Foreign Ministry's website quoted Wang as saying, “China has put forward the idea of the modification of the Arak heavy water reactor … This is the unique role China has played in resolving the Iranian nuclear issue.”

He went on to say “a joint working group consisting of the six parties and co-chaired by China and the United States will be set up”.

Wang said: “As China has put forward this idea of the modification of the Arak heavy water reactor, China would promote this process as initiator while enhancing communication with Iran.”

This is consistent with the wording of the Iran agreement.

An annex to the accord says a “working group” of the six participants will be set up “to facilitate the redesigning and rebuilding of the reactor” but it does not mention either China or the US by name.

The Iran negotiations suggest that, despite major differences over issues such as cybersecurity and the South China Sea, China and the US can work together when their interests coincide.

It is reassuring to see that, at critical moments, the major nations of the world, in particular the US and China, can join hands to confront a common danger.

An improvement in Sino-American relations accompanied the six-party talks on the North Korea nuclear weapons issue from 2003 to 2008.

A similar thing appears to be happening with the Iran nuclear weapons issue.

-- Contact us at [email protected]


Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.