Iran nuclear talks: Can China keep negotiations on track?

China's foreign minister, who joined the talks over the weekend, is reportedly proposing a compromise between Iran's insistence on an end to all UN sanctions and US desires for gradual relief. 

Brendan Smialowski/AP
Officials of Britain, Russia, China, France, Germany, European Union, the United States and Iran wait for the start of a meeting on Iran's nuclear program at the Beau Rivage Palace Hotel in Lausanne, Switzerland Monday, March 30, 2015.

As Tuesday’s deadline for a deal on Iran’s nuclear program loomed, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi joined the talks in Lausanne on Sunday in typically low-key fashion.

After a bland statement urging “all parties to play a positive role … show flexibility and solve the problems,” Mr. Wang went straight into a series of private meetings with his Iranian, US, and European counterparts.

Behind this self-effacing style, however, China’s longstanding friendship with Iran, set alongside Beijing’s fears of it acquiring a nuclear bomb, could offer Wang the chance to play peace broker.

That is how Chinese officials say an interim agreement came about in November 2013 between Iran and its P5+1 interlocutors (the US, China, Russia, Britain, France, and Germany.)

“When the two parties came across irresolvable problems, they would come to China, which would ‘lubricate’ the negotiation and put things back on track,” former Chinese ambassador to Iran Hua Liming told the state-run news agency Xinhua at the time.

Iran, like the United States, is largely fixated on its negotiations with its longtime foe, to the exclusion of other world powers. Iranian journalists at the talks say that even if a political framework can be reached by tomorrow’s deadline, the presence of senior Chinese or Russian diplomats at any signing ceremony would be of minor consequence. 

Still, as Iran pushes hard for the removal of UN Security Council resolutions in return for curbs on its nuclear program, news reports suggest that China may have ideas for a compromise, one that could change Iran’s status under the measures, while still keeping some sanctions on the books. 

Beijing, itself a nuclear power, has been intimately involved in Iran’s nuclear program for 30 years. Tehran began its nuclear journey in 1985 when it signed a cooperation deal that provided for the sale of Chinese nuclear research reactors and Chinese training of Iranian nuclear engineers.

Over the years, under US pressure, China has backed off some deals, such as the provision of two 300MW nuclear reactors, and it now voices much the same level of concern about Iran’s nuclear ambitions as Washington.

Responsible world power

Today, Beijing is weighing several key interests as it frames its position in Lausanne – its energy security, (nine percent of China’s oil imports came from Iran last year), its relationship with Washington, and Beijing’s image as a responsible world power.

Beyond these interests, says Yin Gang, a Middle East expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, “China has a duty to join the search for a political solution,” as a permanent member of the UN Security Council with a desire to see a calmer Middle East.

In the past, Beijing attached a good deal of importance to the international perspective it shared with Tehran; both have reason to resent the way Western powers have dominated global affairs. Now the Chinese government is more pragmatic, putting its relationship with the United States at the heart of its policies.

That has not stopped China from strengthening its ties with Iran; last September, the Chinese and Iranian navies carried out their first joint military maneuvers in the Persian Gulf. But on the nuclear issue, Beijing has overcome its historical abhorrence of economic sanctions as a weapon in international relations to vote alongside Washington in favor of UN sanctions.

“China feels like everyone else, that if you don’t put pressure on the Iranians they will not seek a political solution,” says Prof. Yin.

Rising oil imports

Beijing has been careful, however, to ensure that none of the UN sanctions forbid trade or investment in Iran, and the government has not imposed its own ban on economic ties with Tehran, as the US and other Western countries have done.

China’s trade with Iran jumped from $40 billion in 2013 to $52 billion last year, according to Chinese customs figures. Imports of Iranian oil rose by 30 percent over the same period. Chinese oil companies, unhindered by the kind of bans that have sidelined firms like Exxon or BP, have signed oilfield investment deals with Tehran. 

Though China would not feel directly threatened by an Iranian nuclear weapon, Beijing shares the Western fear that a nuclear Iran could spark a nuclear arms race in one of the world’s most unstable regions.

That would pose a threat to the international peace that Chinese leaders have long seen as key to their economic development plans. It would also undermine one of the central planks in President Xi Jinping’s vision of a new Silk Road, a trade corridor running from Beijing to Central Asia and beyond to Europe.

That makes a nuclear deal between Iran and the world’s leading powers an important goal for Beijing. But analysts here are cautious about China’s leverage in the Lausanne talks.

China “is not a key player,” says Yin. Its good relations with Iran are all very well, he says, “but Iran wants good relations with the United States and Europe. Iran’s focus is not on China’s role, but on a comprehensive deal with America.” 

Staff writer Scott Peterson contributed reporting from Lausanne, Switzerland

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