Confront China's Support for Iran's Nuclear Weapons

Report Asia

Confront China's Support for Iran's Nuclear Weapons

April 18, 2006 9 min read
John Tkacik
Former Senior Research Fellow
John is a former Senior Research Fellow.

How does one say "double-dealing" in Chinese?* Last weekend, Chinese assistant foreign minister Cui Tiankai visited Teheran for the ostensible purpose of expressing concern over Iran's announcement that it is enriching uranium. But Minister Cui's mission was more likely designed to bolster China's security relationship with Iran.


On April 13, the day before Cui departed for Iran, the Chinese Communist Party's official mouthpiece, People's Daily, published a commentary that asserted "the real intention behind the US fueling the Iran issue is to prompt the UN to impose sanctions against Iran, and to pave the way for a regime change in that country. The US's global strategy and its Iran policy emanate out of its decision to use various means, including military means, to change the Iranian regime."[1] Also on April 15, China's Xinhua news agency announced that Iran had been invited to join the "Shanghai Cooperation Organization," China's trade and military alliance framework with Russia and its Central Asian neighbors.[2] China's purpose is to undermine any leverage the international community may have over Iran's nuclear ambitions.


The visit of Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Hu Jintao to Washington this week is an ideal forum for President George W. Bush to confront his Chinese counterpart on this issue. If he does not, there is little hope of walking Iran back from the brink.


Iran's enabler

China's security relationship with Iran is broad. Despite over a decade of protests from Washington, China continues to export nuclear technology, chemical weapons precursors, and guided missiles to Iran. Indeed, China is one of Iran's top two weapons suppliers (with Russia). A report in 2004 by the U.S.-China Security and Review Commission stated that "Chinese entities continue to assist Iran with dual-use missile-related items, raw materials and chemical weapons-related production equipment and technology" and noted that the transfers took place after the Chinese government pledged in December 2003 to withhold missile technology Iran.[3] The Central Intelligence Agency reported in 2004 that "Chinese entities are continuing work on a zirconium production facility at Esfahan that will enable Iran to produce cladding for reactor fuel." Although Iran was a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and was required to accept International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards on its production of zirconium fuel cladding, Iran made no moves to do so, and China exerted no influence to the contrary.[4]


In November 2004, as concerns grew that Iran was misusing its civilian nuclear power program to support weapons development, one senior Iranian official insisted that China was "against referral of the Iranian issue to the Security Council," where Iran could face economic sanctions, and instead wanted the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to retain "responsibility" for the matter.[5] On August 10, 2005, the day that Iran broke IAEA seals at a uranium plant, China's UN ambassador, Wang Guangya, told reporters, "I think it is up to [the IAEA in] Vienna to come up with a solution. I think it is not up to the Security Council." Anyway, "the Council has too many things on the table," he added. "Why should we have more?"


Delaying Tactics

Iran continued to remove its uranium enrichment plants from IAEA oversight. On January 10, 2006, Iran finally removed the last remaining IAEA seals from its nuclear enrichment laboratories. The day before, Iran's deputy foreign minister met with the Chinese foreign minister in Beijing to brief him "about the views and considerations of the Iranian side." As one Washington commentator put it, "in other words, Tehran cleared its action with Beijing." This might explain why China sought, and managed, to water down subsequent IAEA language censuring Iran. Said one western official in dry diplomatic understatement, "Technically, China is being difficult."


European IAEA negotiators had been working fruitlessly with Iran for months, and finally, in frustration, pressured China's IAEA delegation to do something. As usual, China did the least possible. On January 30, it negotiated a very weak statement on Iran. That statement agreed that the IAEA could "report" the matter to the UN Security Council on February 6 but that no action would be taken in the Council until March. Then, on March 20, the Chinese suggested referring the matter back to the IAEA for a further "report" to be completed in four -to six weeks. On March 29, 2006, China and Russia agreed to a nonbinding UN Security Council "statement" calling on Iran to suspend its nuclear program within 30 days-that is, until after Chinese President Hu Jintao's visit to Washington-but rejected any language that might imply they would ever approve sanctions. Even if Iran fails to stop uranium enrichment by April 28, China would likely threaten to veto any UN sanctions, and without sanctions, Iran has little incentive to negotiate the dismantlement of its nuclear weapons program. China now serves as Iran's primary diplomatic protector.


A Strategic Calculation

Beijing's policies appear grounded in a strategic calculation that an alignment with Iran is in Chinese interests. In April 2002, shortly after President Bush labeled Iran as a charter member of the "Axis of Evil," Chinese President Jiang Zemin visited Teheran and conveyed the message that China and Iran hope to "prevent domination of a superpower on the entire world," according to the Iranian press. "The two countries believe that for as long as a united and a comprehensive definition of 'terrorism' is not offered which can be endorsed by the international organizations, no state can attack other countries under the pretext of fighting terrorism and on the basis of its own definition of the term," reported Iran's state-controlled media. The Iranian press reported that "some political observers" saw the "visit of China's president to Iran in the new century . . . as the undeclared coalition of the two sides against America." In Tehran, Jiang declared that China's policy was "to oppose American deployments in Central Asia and the Middle East." He also pledged that "one of China's most important diplomatic missions is to strengthen unity and cooperation with developing countries and to avoid having developing countries become the targets of American military attacks."[6]


What the Administration and Congress Should Do

In a September 2005 speech, Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick asked, "For the United States and the world, the essential question is, how will China use its influence?"


For all practical purposes, the answer is clear: China's influence is destabilizing the international nonproliferation system. It has protected North Korea for decades, and now Chinese diplomacy protects Iran from the punitive sanctions that have been essential to the enforcement of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty against other countries, such as South Africa and Libya.


The Bush Administration should cease pretending that China's involvement in Iranian nuclear weapons negotiations has been constructive and publicly question China's motives. It should confront Beijing's subtle but substantial support for Iranian nuclear weapons, advanced conventional weapons, and other security programs. Public statements of disappointment over China's support for North Korea and Iran's nuclear ambitions would help clear the air and deny China diplomatic leverage. But as long as China can appear to be a "constructive" participant in resolving the crisis, China can claim to be an "honest broker" between the U.S. and nuclear pariahs.


This message must be loud and clear and public-at the United Nations, at the IAEA, during the semi-annual "strategic senior dialogues" between Deputy Secretary Zoellick and his Chinese counterpart Dai Bingguo,[7] and above all, at the summit between President George Bush and Chinese president Hu Jintao this week.


John J. Tkacik, Jr., is Senior Research Fellow in China Policy in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.

* Several Chinese expressions are appropriate translations, from the rather prosaic "gao liangmian pai" (playing both faces) and "liangmian ren" (two-faced person) to the more literary "yijia luanzhen" (using the false to confound the truth).

[1] Li Yongsheng, " 'Huo shang jia you' Yi zai zhicai" ['Adding Oil to the Fire', the intent is sanctions], People's Daily (Beijing), April 13, 2006, p. 3.

[2] "Iran hopes to join Shanghai group this summer," Xinhua news agency, April 15, 2006, at

[3] See 2004 Report to Congress of the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, June 2004, p.128, at See also Unclassified Report to Congress on the Acquisition of Technology Relating to Weapons of Mass Destruction and Advanced Conventional Munitions, 1 July Through 31 December 2003, Central Intelligence Agency, at

[4] "Unclassified Report to Congress on the Acquisition of Technology Relating to Weapons of Mass Destruction and Advanced Conventional Munitions, 1 January Through 30 June 2002," The Central Intelligence Agency, April 10, 2003, at

[5] Joe McDonald, "Iran: China Supports Effort to Avoid U.N.," The Associated Press, November 24, 2004.

[6] "Jiang fang Yilang, Fandui Mei zhujun Dongya Zhongdong" (Jiang visit to Iran, opposes US troops in Middle East), Taipei, China Times, April 22, 2002, p. 2. Cites Iran National Broadcast Service as source.

[7] William C. Mann, "U.S., China End Talks Agreeing to Disagree," The Associated Press, December 8, 2005. See also Glenn Kessler, "Zoellick Details Discussions With China on Future of the Korean Peninsula -DPRK 'Criminal State,'" The Washington Post, September 7, 2005, p. A22 at

After 20 hours of discussions with his Chinese counterpart at the August 2005 "senior dialogue," Zoellick admitted he still "did not know if the Chinese deals being struck with countries the United States considers problematic were driven by individual bureaucracies seeking market openings or part of a 'strategic plan.'"


John Tkacik

Former Senior Research Fellow

More on This Issue