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Andrew S.

Melosi - Spring 2010
Public Policy History

Policy Piece: Iranian Nuclear Issue - Is it bigger than just Iran?

A CNN poll revealed US citizens’ concern over the Iranian Nuclear development.

According to the poll, 71-percent of those polled believe Iran has nuclear weapons, not just

nuclear energy technology. Sixty percent want economic and diplomatic sanctions brought

against Iran. President Obama has dealt with the Iranian nuclear question since his campaign in

2008. To date, there have been no successful actions against Iran’s nuclear proliferation. One

has to wonder how Obama will end up dealing with this situation as his presidency progresses.

Israel and many realist policymakers believe the time for sanctions has come and gone; the UN

Security Council passed three resolutions in 2006-2008 against Iran geared toward ending

nuclear research and development. According to the CNN poll in question, 25-percent of

Americans believe military action is already warranted while 59-percent think should sanctions

continue to fail, that military operations will be necessary. Obama has already undergone

criticism for his decision to expand operations in Afghanistan, would going to war with Iran be

political suicide or redemption? How can war be avoided without losing credibility in the

region?1 At issue is how much influence China has over the changing world system. Polls and

many articles point to the UNSC or the US as the key actor in this ongoing nuclear episode, but

China’s rise to power is allowing it more credence and sway in more negotiations. This is a

sensitive topic for Americans, and it seems more and more than the show down between the US

and China is going to be the Iranian nuclear issue.

The balance of power between nuclear and non nuclear states has been crucial towards

avoiding an all-out nuclear war, or episode for that matter. One must recall the principle of

mutually assured destruction that worked as a deterrent force throughout the cold war; no power

had enough nuclear warheads to fully wipe out another’s capabilities before both countries would

be nearly obliterated. With this in mind, why is adding another nuclear power to the world such

a big deal? Is it because the nuclear-capable powers did not first concede authority to Iran to

develop, or is it the face value threat to Israel and the balance of power in the Near East region?

Since 2006 (and arguably since the early 1960s) the United States has enjoyed nuclear primacy.

Only Russia and China have moved to match the capacity of American nuclear weaponry since.

In a way, the last remnant of American prestige in the world is its military and the implications of

a shift in this balance of power, be it from China, Russia, or new state development can tip the

scale dramatically. Hawks currently attest to the balance of power with the US on top through its

conventional and unconventional capacity while Doves believe nuclear primacy invites problems

such as Iran today. The theory of “crisis instability” furthers the worries of the Doves because

it’s hypothetical scenarios allow for larger states to hand over nuclear weapons to lower-level

states who would be prone to use them without recourse. 2 Again, this points at Iran in 2010.

Obama has to navigate through these scenarios and make a decision, but he must go further than

the failures of the UN security council since 2006 which worked with President Bush.

Even under sanctions against Iran, Tehran has built “clandestine nuclear facilities,

centrifuges, and [is] enriching uranium while refusing full access to international weapons

inspectors and turning down deals with the West.” With Iran’s stated policy towards much of the

west, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s findings in February 2010 are prompting the

UNSC and Washington, in particular, to act now. It is no secret that Iran likely intends to attack

Israel if it finds the means to do so. But, this rhetoric threat cycle is not new. Obama’s hesitation

for action stems from lack of funding (even though this arguably has not been a deterring factor

in his administration thus far), lack of public support (poll numbers were similar for many

invasions turned quagmire for the US), and lack of credibility. Even after the failed UNSC

sanctions, AIPAC and other lobbying groups in the US and Europe want to seek newer sanctions.

Another undeclared war for the United States is highly unlikely given the current move to

withdraw troops.3 With that in mind, is it wise for UN allies to fall in line behind the US at this

current time? It is more likely that any military initiatives will come from Israel if any military

action will be considered; and one must recall Israel has a tendency to act even more unilaterally

than the United States.

Sanctions in 2010 are expected to come from Washington acting unilaterally, but any

further UNSC sanctions are unlikely. China has become a dominant force on the world stage and

is the major power working with Iran on development. In April 2006, China’s People’s Daily

published a piece exposing the relationship between Iran and China. China’s trade and military

alliance system, Shanghai Cooperation Organization, invited Iran to join ranks. Presumably,

this is geared toward exerting more control in their sphere of influence. While Russia, also a

member of the alliance, was originally on board with the idea of Iran, the Russians have moved

past hypothetical development facilitating, and are expressing concerns much in tune with the

United States. China is known to be exporting nuclear schematics, chemical weapons

precursors, and guided missiles to Iran as part of the military alliance. As early as 2004,

suspicion over Iranian nuclear development into weapons mounted. Chinese officials have

supported the Iran development project by promising veto votes in the UNSC, but three

sanctions did get through before the end of Bush’s administration. 4

There is a defined history between Iran and China since the latter 20th century, but there

are many angles to approach it from when relating the trends to the next step of diplomatic

decision in 2010. Conservative affiliates see the history between China and Iran in the first

decade of the 21st century as proof enough that the balance of power is shifting in favor of China

and its allies. In 1992, modified in 1996, the US signed the Iran-Iraq Arms Non-Proliferation

Act that allowed for sanctions upon any person or foreign government that transferred goods or

technology knowingly in effort to acquire weapons of mass destruction by Iran or Iraq.5 At the

time of the legislation’s signing, the United States remained the unquestioned superpower,

however, China’s rise to power--most aggressively in the past two decades--stands to intrude on

the US’s domain. A more forgiving vantage to approach the issues is that China and Middle East

are reminiscent of NATO, and geographically China is closer than the US is. This liberal

approach to the issue, however, has faltered since the turn of the century when diplomacy and

promises proved to be rhetorical and nothing more.

China began trading with Iran in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq War. Relations were

denied over the nuclear question until 1991 when Chinese and Iranian diplomats announced the

purchase of Iran’s first 20 MW research reactor. A year later, China announced it would supply

two 300 MW pressurized water reactors to Iran that would be in use before 2001. The original

20 MW sale failed, likely because of US intervention, but officially because of technical

concerns. In October 1997 Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen pledged that China would

provide no new nuclear assistance to Iran and the CIA confirmed projects completed in 1998.

Diplomacy and assurances seem to have been little more than ways to distract the international

community from seeing the tight alliance between China and Iran. For example, in 1998 the

NSA intercepted communications between the Isfahan Nuclear Research Center in Iran and

Beijing concerning the purchase of hundreds of tons of AHF to be used in uranium enrichment.

It took US officials two years to halt the deal. China provided weaponry to Iran during their

eight-year war with Iraq in the 1980s and nuclear technology seems to be the next step in

furthering their military alliance. Why is China interested in Iran? The importance of the

Persian Gulf is likely the reason. China’s industrial growth relies on importing oil and such a

close, oil-rich neighbor is necessary for Chinese expansion. China seems to be exploiting its

position in the UNSC to undermine the credibility of US concerns. This is done by noting that

all known nuclear sites in Iran are subject to IAEA inspections, but as recently as 2003, IAEA

cited Iran for “failing to report 1.8 tons of natural uranium it imported from China.”6 The more

recent events, notably in spring 2010, are little more than the culmination of unsuccessful

interference by the UN and the US.

The larger questions in 2010 are these: Since sanctions are ignored what good are they?

Because China is as large an influence as the US, what credibility does the US have in dealing

with the Iran-China issue? Will military preemptive strikes come from the US or from Israel

first, if at all? The latest change in orientation occurred in 2008 when China released to the UN

intelligence on Iran’s “efforts to acquire nuclear technology.” While this may seem on the

surface to signal that China is on board with UN and US concerns, they have lured trust in the

past few decades over the course of this heated topic by many unconventional ways as shown in

the previous pages. Again in April 2009, Iran was exposed by US and British intelligence

agencies in trying to acquire nuclear goods through AQ Khan’s smuggling network; Chinese

companies were the fronts for the alleged trades. Later in November 2009, Obama assured the

world that China was in accord on the issue of Iran nuclear transparency. This raises another

issue that may be at heart in the political debate in the future: is the Chinese State a unitary actor,

or has the Chinese State lost its ability to control nuclear material within its own borders? The

implications for such a scenario are beyond the known assessments for nuclear proliferation

scenarios, but this may be what Obama is having to face.7

At face value, the original article that piqued interest in this situation shows how even the

American public believe Iran has nuclear weapons now. Future policy makers need to

understand that China has a tendency to “stick up” for Iranian nuclear proliferation because it

suits their national interests, oil. China has a history of defending Iranian nuclear development

and also has the capability as a permanent UNSC member to influence the severity of proposed

sanctions.8 Obama’s administration has to deal with economic relations between China and the

United States, but must also confront the Iranian nuclear issue because the US’s strategic ally,

Israel, is deeply involved and concerned. Policymakers much accept the changing balance of

power, and this is likely the reason Obama worked so closely with China early on in his

administration. The United States is indebted to China, and yet we are also China’s top importer

for consumer goods. The economic relationship between the two powers must be considered and

thus, China has to legitimately be in accord with any US or UNSC sanctions against Iran. At the

same time, talks and sanctions have been coordinated for years and Israel will not wait forever

on a decision; it is in Israel’s national interest to keep nuclear weapons from Iran.

As large a debate as this will take time to reach a fruitful settlement for all, or most,

parties involved. It was not my intention to draw this out quite so long. I have worked on

shrinking it down only to find more on Sunday afternoon’s releases of new developments. At

issue, I believe, is whether China or the United States has more influence in the changing world

political apparatus. Obama is going to have to offer more beneficial agreements to Iran because

of its relationship with China, but he will also have to balance those agreements with something

of use and assurance to Israel and other powers concerned with Iranian nuclear proliferation. It

seems, based on the thirty year history of this issue, that Iran will inevitably acquire nuclear

weapons and energy if it has not already. This realist conclusion from looking at the debate over

time suggests it will be a raised point at any negotiations. Ultimately, Iran’s nuclear proliferation

may at face value seem to be a localized issue, however, the complex relationships between the

parties involved raise a much greater question: Is China becoming a foreign power equal to the

United States?

1 Uriel Heilman, “If Sanctions on Iran haven’t worked, why bother again?,” Jewish Telegraphic Agency Online, 20
February 2010, available on-line at http://jta.org/news/article/2010/02/21/1010711; “CNN Poll: Americans Believe
Iran has Nuclear Weapons,” CNN Politics, 19 February 2010, available on-line at http://
fbid=QR_Qp_eLGH-; CNN Poll: Opinion Research, “Interveiws with 1,023 adult Americans...,” CNN Opinion
Research Corporation, available on-line at http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2010/images/02/19/rel4e.pdf.
2Keir A. Lieber and Daryl G. Press, “The Rise of U.S. Nuclear Primacy,” Foreign Affairs 85, No. 2 (March, 2006),
42-45; Ze’ev Schiff, “Israel’s War with Iran,” Foreign Affairs 85, No.6 (November, 2006), 23-24; Uriel Heilman, “If
Sanctions on Iran haven’t worked, why bother again?,” Jewish Telegraphic Agency Online, 20 February 2010,
available on-line at http://jta.org/news/article/2010/02/21/1010711.
3“Israel drones could target Iran,” AlJazeera Online, 21 February 2010. Available on line at http://
english.aljazeera.net/news/middleeast/2010/02/2010221181347325634.html; Uriel Heilman, “If Sanctions on Iran
haven’t worked, why bother again?,” Jewish Telegraphic Agency Online, 20 February 2010, available on-line at
http://jta.org/news/article/2010/02/21/1010711; James Phillips, “New IAEA Report Warns about Iran’s Nuclear
Weapons Efforts,” The Foundry, 19 February 2010, available on line at http://blog.heritage.org/2010/02/19/.
4Margaret Neighbour, “Russia Voices Alarm over Iran Nuclear Weapons Programme,” News Scotsman, 21 February
2010, available on-line at http://news.scotsman.com/world/Russia/; “Q&A: Iran and the Nuclear Issue,” BBC News,
accessed 21 February 2010, available on-line at http://newsvote.bbc.co.uk/mpapps/pagetools/print/news.bbc.co.uk/2/
hi/middle_east/4031603.stm?ad=1; John Tkacik, Jr., “Confront China’s Support for Iran’s Nuclear Weapons,” Web
Memo: Heritage Foundation, 18 April 2006, available on-line at http://www.heritage.org/research/asiaandthepacific/
51992 Iran-Iraq Arms Nonproliferation Act, US State Department, available on-line at http://www.state.gov/t/isn/
c15237.htm; “China’s Nuclear Exports and Assistance to Iran,” Nuclear Threat Initiative, available on-line at http://
www.nti.org/db/China/niranpos.htm; Shirley A. Kan, "Chinese Missile and Nuclear Proliferation: Issues for
Congress," Congressional Research Issue Brief, 24 August 1992; Shirley A. Kan, "Chinese Proliferation of
Weapons of Mass Destruction: Current Policy Issues," CRS Issue Brief, 17 October 1996; Shirley A. Kan, "Chinese
Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction: Current Policy Issues," CRS Issue Brief, 9 June 1997.
6Douglas Frantz, “Iran Closes in on Ability to Make Atomic Bomb,” Los Angeles Times, 19 June 2003;
“Unclassified Report to Congress on the Acquisition of Technology Relating to Weapons of Mass Destruction and
Advanced Conventional Munitions,” 1 January-30 June 2000, linked to in NTI’s “China’s Nuclear Exports and
Assistance to Iran,” Nuclear Threat Initiative, available on-line at http://www.nti.org/db/China/niranpos.htm.
7Scott D. Sagan, “How to Keep the Bomb from Iran,” Foreign Affairs 85, No. 5 (September 2006) 45-59;
Caren Bohan and Patricia Zengerle, “Obama says China agrees on Iran nuclear Transparency,” Thomson Reuters, 17
November 2009, available on-line at http://reuters.com/assets/print?aid=USTRE5AG18920091117; Damien
McElroy, “China Reveals Iran’s Nuclear Secrets to the UN,” Telegraph News, 02 April 2008, Available on-line at
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/1583682/; Julian Borger, “Iran using Chinese Companies to Buy
Nuclear Equipment,” Telegraph News, 08 April 2009, Available on-line at http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/
apr/09/; Daniel Pipes and Patrick Clawson, “Ambitious Iran, Troubled Neighbors,” Foreign Affairs 72, No. 1
1992-1993 America and the World Special, 124-141.
8 AfshinMolavi, “Buying time in Tehran: Iran and the China Model,” Foreign Affairs 83, no. 6 (November 2004)
9-15; Kenneth Pollack and Ray Takeyh, “Taking on Tehran,” Foreign Affairs 84, No. 2 (March 2005) 20-32.