Iran on Saturday announced a $3.2 billion natural gas deal with China, a move which, according to the LA Times, underscores the difficulty of using economic sanctions to pressure Tehran to bow to US demands on its nuclear program:
Iranian state television quoted a senior government official as saying the deal with a Chinese consortium, announced two days after the Obama administration renewed U.S. sanctions against the Islamic Republic, would eventually include an unnamed European country as a partnerUnder the three-year deal, China will help develop the South Pars field, a sprawling cavity beneath the Persian Gulf seabed that is part of what geologists describe as the world's largest natural gas reservoir.
Sino-Iranian relations date back over many centuries; the Parthians and Sassanids had various contacts with China, and the two lands were further connected via the Silk Road. Today, China's relations with Iran are motivated, I would argue, primarily by China's quest for energy (and vice versa). This is not to discount broader geopolitical strategic interests, but rather to posit the primacy of energy over all other such factors. Iran today is indispensable to China's energy security.
Yet as it continues its ascendance onto the global stage, China must tread carefully and act responsibly on Iran. John W. Garver, professor at the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at Georgia Tech observes:
[T]his now-traditional Chinese approach is fast approaching the limits of its utility. By refusing to use China’s immense leverage with Iran to nudge Tehran toward verifying to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Security Council that Iran’s nuclear programs are not in pursuit of nuclear weapons, Beijing is allowing the Persian Gulf to drift toward increased instability that is not in China’s own best interests. The two probable outcomes of the current course of events over the Iran nuclear imbroglio are these. First, war triggered by Israeli pre-emptive attack, with or without U.S. support. Or, second, increased international rivalry via increased Iranian assertiveness once Iran possesses nuclear weapons or the capability to fabricate those in short order. The already wobbling Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty regime would also be further weakened, perhaps fatally by Iranian nuclear weapons capability. None of these outcomes is in China’s interests. Nor the world’s.
I'm not certain of the likelihood of the first option, though the second is quite viable, if not already beginning to materialize. As Dingli Shen further observes, a closer relationship with Tehran has the potential to irritate the US and other Western powers at a time when China truly cares about its global image. Indeed, as China assumes greater presence on the global stage, the international community is scrutinizing its every move, wary of its future direction. The Iran issue may thus be regarded as a test of Beijing's wisdom and its responsibility as a major global power. A test which China's leaders should do well to pass. Personally, I'm not sure that this recent deal does much to help Beijing achieve such an end.