President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to Beijing for a Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit and looming implementation of the latest round of U.S. secondary sanctions against countries that continue buying oil from and doing other business with the Islamic Republic have once again focused the spotlight on Sino-Iranian relations. On that front, Americans, in particular, should read an Op Ed, “Sino-Iranian Ties Important,” published today in China Daily by Hua Liming, see here.
Hua is described in the bio line to his Op Ed as “a former ambassador to China and now a researcher at the China Institute of International Studies.” We had the good fortune to meet Ambassador Hua last year in Beijing, and found him to be one of the most experienced, most richly informed, and wisest people on Iranian affairs one could hope to know.
In his Op Ed, Ambassador Hua states his bottom line up front, with commendable clarity: “It is unrealistic for the US to expect China to act in a way that is harmful to its interests and against its diplomatic principles.” After succinctly reviewing why, contrary to Western stereotypes, “Iran is neither rogue nor fundamentalist,” he gets to the core of Sino-American disagreements over dealing with the Islamic Republic:
“The US is not willing to let its dominance in the Middle East be challenged by a regional power like Iran; so the hostility and antagonism between the two countries has grown. In contrast, Sino-Iranian relations are one of the oldest bilateral relations in the world and valued by both sides…The foundations for their friendship are that China has never intervened in Iran’s domestic affairs and their economies are complementary, offering huge potential for cooperation.
The US hopes to enlist China’s help in dealing with Iran. But that’s impossible because China will never join the zero-sum game between the US and Iran…The disagreement between the US and China has become especially serious with the US imposing sanctions to restrict Iran’s oil exports as China is a big importer of Iranian oil. But maintaining relations with Iran is a matter concerning China’s vital interests and China’s fundamental diplomatic principles. The US should respect China’s friendly relations with Iran, as well as its interests.”
Ambassador Hua is kind enough to cite one of our posts on the triangular dynamics between Iran, China, and the United States, see here [link to July 27, 2011 post, “U.S. Sanctions and China’s Iran Policy”], including our observation that “the United States cannot forever ask other countries to act in ways that are harmful to their interests.” He expands on this point, noting that “the US may gain some short-term victories by asking China to act against its own interests but this will only sour the Sino-US relationship in the long run. To prevent disagreements over Iran from harming bilateral relations, it is necessary for the two sides to respect each other’s interests and bottom line. That requires the US change its hostility toward Iran.”
We could not agree more. In the near term, the United States faces a fateful choice whether to impose extraterritorial (and, hence, blatantly illegal) secondary sanctions against China for its ongoing purchases of Iranian oil. We believe that, if Washington chooses this path, it will prove deeply counter-productive for American interests—with respect to Iran, vis-à-vis China, and in terms of its impact on the United States’ broader economic and strategic position in the world.
In the longer term, American political and policy elites have yet to face up to the challenge that Ambassador Hua defines for them. To restate this challenge from an American perspective, adept management of the Sino-American relationship—which will be critical to America’s standing as a great power in the 21st century—requires that the United States pursue a fundamentally different policy toward Iran. In essence, the United States needs to re-orient its policy towards the Islamic Republic of Iran in the same way that it reoriented its policy toward the People’s Republic China in the early 1970s. At present, though, American policy remains oblivious to this imperative.
–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett