A standoff between Iran and the West over Iran’s nuclear plans could erupt in military conflict, a Chinese state newspaper said yesterday, after the release of a UN report likely to increase pressure on Beijing to curb its Iranian ties.
Chinese policymakers are caught between their demand for Iranian oil and worry that the US and its allies will demand harsher sanctions against Iran, even risk military action, after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) concluded Iran appeared to have worked on designing an atomic weapon.
“It is clear that contention between the various sides over the Iranian nuclear issue has reached white hot levels and could even be on the precipice of a showdown,” the overseas edition of the People’s Daily said in a front-page commentary.
If Iran refused to back down in the face of growing US conviction that it was developing nuclear weapons, “the risks of war will grow,” the paper said, noting reports that Israel could consider a military strike on Iranian nuclear sites.
The People’s Daily is the top newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party and broadly reflects official thinking.
A commentary in the small-circulation overseas edition of the newspaper falls short of a formal government response, but it suggests the anxieties weighing on Beijing after the latest UN nuclear agency report.
Xinhua news agency also suggested Beijing would respond warily to the report. The UN watchdog still “lacks a smoking gun,” Xinhua said in a commentary.
“There are no witnesses or physical evidence to prove that Iran is making nuclear weapons,” it said. “In dealing with the Iran nuclear issue, it is extremely dangerous to rely on suspicions, and the destructive consequences of any armed action would endure for a long time.”
China is likely to face difficult choices as it tries to keep steady ties with the US, which is likely to introduce new unilateral sanctions on Iran.
“If these sanctions harm China’s substantive interests, then China will have to respond in some way,” said Li Hong (黎弘), secretary-general of the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, a government-controlled body.
“It would certainly have an impact on bilateral relations,” Li said in an interview.
Iran is China’s third-largest crude oil supplier, shipping 20.3 million tonnes in the first nine months of the year, up by almost one-third on the same time last year, according to Chinese data. Overall trade between the two countries grew to US$32.9 billion in value in the first nine months, up by 58 percent.
“The onus will really be on China, as the only country whose economic relations with Iran have grown,” Suzanne Maloney an expert on Iran at the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington, said in a telephone interview.
Over the past year or more, China has quietly stalled on oil and gas investments in Iran, seeking to ward off stricter unilateral sanctions from Washington, while preserving a foothold in Iran. However, that implicit deal will come under growing pressure, especially from the US Congress, Maloney said.
“They’ve had a compromise for the past 18 months of a go-slow in investment, but it’s difficult to see how that bargain can hold in the wake of the latest revelations,” Maloney said.
Citing what it called “credible” information from member states and elsewhere, the IAEA said Iran appeared to have carried out activities applicable to developing nuclear weapons, such as high explosives testing and developing a trigger that could be used for an atomic bomb.