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China: Beijing Watching Course Of U.S.-Iranian Relations

  • Michael Lelyveld

In an unusual commentary, China's official "People's Daily" says that Iran is at a crossroads in relations with the United States as a result of the Afghanistan crisis. Beijing seems to be urging Tehran to take steps toward reconciliation with Washington.

Boston, 24 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- China is paying close attention to the course of U.S.-Iranian relations in the wake of the 11 September attacks on New York and Washington.

In an unusual analysis on 23 October, China's state-controlled newspaper, "People's Daily," examined Iranian responses to U.S. actions in neighboring Afghanistan at great length.

The unsigned piece entitled "Iran at Crossroad in Afghanistan Crisis" represents a departure for China's official press, which rarely comments on bilateral relations that do not directly involve Beijing. The analysis may also be the Chinese government's first such pronouncement on interactions between Washington and Tehran. But the 1,200-word commentary makes clear that Chinese policy-makers have been watching developments in U.S.-Iranian relations with great interest and may be hoping for changes on both sides.

The Chinese analysis said that, "Iran, while denouncing Washington's actions and officially ruling out [the] possibility of military cooperation with its decades-old arch-foe, has started to review regional issues in a pragmatic manner." The statement seems to carry the implied criticism that Tehran has not been pragmatic until now. The paper said, "While Tehran's rhetoric keeps trashing the U.S. offensives, calls for wisely dealing with the situation are increasing." The tone of the piece is all the more remarkable in light of China's avowed principle of non-interference in internal affairs. It may be doubly remarkable in view of Beijing's close relations with Tehran.

In June 2000, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami paid a five-day state visit to China, marking the first such trip by an Iranian leader since the revolution of 1979. Iranian officials have called the relationship with China "strategic." In the past, Washington has imposed sanctions on Chinese companies for helping Iran with its weapons programs.

But just two days after its own improvement in U.S. relations at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Shanghai, China seems to be urging Iran to take similar steps. "People's Daily" quoted at least 12 Iranian officials and sources with arguments both for and against U.S. actions in the region. But again, it seemed to criticize the opposition. The paper said, "Taking cue from the hard-line supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Tehran officials' rhetoric has largely been revolutionary and radical." The analysis had kinder words for the logic of conciliation. It noted, "Reports are saying that Iran's lack of cooperation with the U.S. would actually prevent it from playing a major role in Afghan developments and give a free hand to its rival, Pakistan."

The paper also cited an unverified report by the Iranian daily "Entekhab" saying that U.S. President George W. Bush has already approved the lifting of sanctions and other measures aimed at Iran. But a State Department spokesman told RFE/RL, "There's been no approval of anything like that. Our policy toward Iran has not changed." The official said the policy remains under review.

Iran has so far sent a series of mixed signals. After confirming reports that it has agreed to help any downed U.S. airmen found on its territory, it has toughened its criticism of the operations in Afghanistan. But China's commentary on the controversy is even more curious.

Geoffrey Kemp, director of regional strategic programs at the Nixon Center in Washington, said in an interview that China may be concerned about the uncertainty of change as a result of the new coalition against terrorism. Kemp said, "China has been about the only major Asian power that has good relations with everybody in the Middle East. I imagine they now fear that everything is up for grabs." China's worst fear may be that a radical Muslim force could gain power in the region, worsening its worries over separatism in its western region of Xinjiang, Kemp said.

But there is also the possibility that Beijing may seek to ease concerns about its energy security and its growing dependence on the Middle East. According to U.S. Energy Department estimates, China already relies on imports for about one-third of its oil. Much of it comes from the Persian Gulf. China imported 140,000 barrels of oil per day from Iran in 2000 and has committed to increasing the trade by 71 percent this year, according to the Dow Jones news agency.

Some analysts have argued that the U.S. naval presence in the region makes a collision with China inevitable as the country's demand for imported oil grows. But others say the concern is misplaced and that America's interest is in keeping the sea lanes open for all oil trade.

Whatever the reason, China seems to have decided that better relations between the United States and Iran will serve its best interests. It now seems to be pressing publicly for change.