China may think of itself as a turtle coming out of its shell into the international arena, lumbering along and minding its own business on the long road to modernization. Trouble is some may see it more as a jaguar that may pounce on its prey without warning.
What to do?
China may not be able to change its stripes, but it is well poised to put on a friendly coat and play a more active role as an international mediator, specifically between the United States and Iran.
China enjoys good relations and a degree of influence with Tehran and Washington. With the United States reeling from setbacks in Iraq, and with traditional European allies uninterested in closer diplomatic cooperation with Washington, China could garner a lot of American good will by helping the United States handle its Iranian problem.
There are people in China who think along these lines. Liming Hua, a former Chinese ambassador to Iran, recently suggested that Beijing attempt to play a mediatory role in U.S.-Iran relations. Writing in a journal published by a research institute attached to the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Ambassador Hua argued that intensifying U.S. pressure on Iran and counter-moves by Iran will lead to war, with the U.S. seeking regime change in Iran along the lines of the ouster of Saddam Hussein. A U.S.-Iran war would disrupt the robust economic ties between Iran and China, and lead to instability across the Persian Gulf and the Middle East. This would be a severe blow to China’s development drive (more than half of China’s imported oil comes from the Middle East) and might even force China to subordinate its development drive to national security concerns. China shares with Washington opposition to Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons but believes that the current U.S. policy will not accomplish that aim, at least not short of all-out U.S.-Iran war.
China’s own interests aside, Beijing enjoys good relations and trust with both Washington and Tehran, Ambassador Hua notes, and is being urged by both countries to play a more active role in world affairs. While Iranian-U.S. ties are mired in deep mutual distrust and animosity, China might be able to use its good ties with both to overcome the mutual suspicion resulting from decades of conflict between Iran and the United States. China could shuttle messages back and forth and draft proposals for the two sides to respond to. Mediation of U.S.-Iranian ties would entail a sharp break with China’s traditional diplomatic passivity, but China is already moving in that direction. Even medium sized powers can help mediate international conflict, Ambassador Hua argues, pointing to Norway’s mediation between Israel and Palestinians in the early 1990s. Chinese assistance in achieving a Iranian-U.S. rapprochement would win the goodwill of both sides for China and would demonstrate to the world the positive fashion in which China intends to exercise its growing power.
A good place for Americans to start in considering Ambassador Hua’s proposal would be recognition of a first class diplomatic blunder by the United States: inclusion of Iran in an “axis of evil” in President Bush’s January 2002 State of the Union speech. Bob Woodard in his book on the Bush administration’s road to the 2003 war against Iraq details the superficial nature of the deliberations underlying that inclusion. In fact, Iran’s inclusion in the “axis of evil” came against the background of substantial Iranian assistance to the U.S. effort against al Qaeda and the Taliban. According to an account by Seif al-Adl, overall military commander of al Qaeda, following the September 11 attacks, Iran responded to U.S. demands by arresting or extraditing back to their native countries hundreds of al Qaeda operatives, a move that “disrupted 75 percent of our plans” according to al-Adl. When U.S. forces moved to oust the Taliban regime, Iranian agents in Afghanistan provided tactical intelligence that greatly facilitated U.S. bombing of Taliban forces. Iran then played a positive role in the post-war efforts at political and economic reconstruction of Afghanistan. Tehran quickly recognized the U.S.-sponsored Karzai government of Afghanistan. At an international conference in Bonn, Germany in December 2001, Iran stepped in to break a deadlock over levels of assistance to post-Taliban Afghanistan. The response to these Iranian expressions of willingness to cooperate with the U.S. was inclusion by the U.S. President in the same category as Saddam Hussein. From an Iranian perspective, there could not have been a worse, more demeaning, and wildly inaccurate, categorization.
There are different voices in Iran and among Iran’s political elite. Not all Iranian leaders view the world as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad does. There are influential voices — not to mention Iranian public opinion — who feel that Iran’s current path of confrontation with the United States and the European countries (who are Iran’s major economic partners), will hobble the country’s economic development. Many Iranians understand full well that loss of access to Western investment, bank credit, technology, and, possibly markets, would be a serious blow to Iranian development. But they also believe that the United States has rejected Iranian efforts to reach out to the United States and shown no desire to reach a modus vivindi with the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Before going further down the road of confrontation with Iran, The United States must explore the possibility of another path. If China’s good offices can assist in this effort, so much the better. If China can satisfy its craving for international recognition by fostering peace between the United States and other countries, would that not be positive? Perhaps someday Washington might repay the favor by fostering reconciliation between Tokyo and Beijing.