Between December 2006 and June 2010, the UN Security Council issued four resolutions imposing sanctions on Iran for trying to manufacture nuclear weapons. After Iran signed a nuclear deal with the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany in 2015, curbing Iran’s nuclear activities in return for a gradual lifting of sanctions, the US decided in May 2018 to withdraw from the deal and slap stiff US sanctions on Iran. Recently, the US revisited the international sanctions issue, some of which are in place until 2022 while others will expire in October this year.
The administration of US President Donald Trump wants to renew the October sanctions, but China has publicly objected to the move under the pretext that the US’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal voids its right to request an extension of sanctions that are included in the deal that was unilaterally annulled. Washington is preparing for China (and perhaps Russia too) insisting on a position that supports Iran, or attempts to take advantage of this issue to barter for US concessions on other issues.
The US threatened that if China or Russia obstructed the renewal of the sanctions, Washington will propose a new resolution in the Security Council for more, and perhaps even harsher, sanctions against Iran. US Special Envoy for Iran Brian Hook said the US has drafted a Security Council resolution to extend the arms embargo on Iran.
China chose to respond to Trump’s attempt to hold Beijing responsible for the Covid-19 pandemic by publicly objecting to ways of handling Iran’s attempts to manufacture unconventional weapons, but this is unlikely to stop Washington’s accusations against China. First, it is not in China’s interest to seem to support the testing of ballistic missiles in the Middle East since the sanctions that Washington wants to extend to pressure on Iran on this issue specifically. Second, China’s attempts to save Iran from sanctions could impact its relations with many Middle East countries, such as Gulf states that are most threatened by Iran’s ambition of exporting its ideology and those aiding it. The same is true for Israel which has worked diligently to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons or carrying out ballistic missile tests. China has major economic and political interests with Gulf countries (Saudi Arabia and UAE) and Israel, so it will not be beneficial for Beijing to lose them for the sake of Iran.
Third, the EU, and countries that influence its decisions such as Germany, France and Britain, will not support China if it decides to protect Iran from sanctions due to its ballistics programme, since they agree that Tehran should not be carrying out missile tests. Concerned European countries had formed a united front, along with Russia and China, to prevent the nuclear deal with Iran from collapsing after Washington withdrew. Therefore, any fractures in this front are highly possible right now. European countries will not support China in blocking an extension of sanctions on Iran, and could in fact support Trump if he decided to submit a draft resolution for new sanctions on Iran.
Fourth, it would not benefit China, which is trying to promote itself as a leader of the new world order after the Covid-19 pandemic ends (as some believe and Beijing hopes) that is more interested in peace, to launch this role by standing by a country that is trying to destabilise the Middle East and whose policies are escalating the nuclear and ballistic arms race in the region.
There is, however, a path that China can take to rein in Trump and block him from taking advantage of the Covid-19 pandemic against Beijing. It should focus on Trump’s weakness with various players inside and outside the US, as follows: first, there is growing opposition to Trump’s claim that China is responsible for the novel coronavirus outbreak; and his Democrat opponents point out that the disease spread due to the haphazard policies of Trump’s administration, not because China hid information that could have helped prevent the spread of the deadly virus.
Second, it is in China’s interest to attract countries that are undecided in supporting Trump to launch an international investigation into China’s role in spreading the pandemic.
China’s defence of Iran could result in more finger pointing against Beijing in the Covid-19 pandemic, especially since many European countries such as France and Italy already support such an investigation. If China does not mix issues in its dispute with the US, then European countries that support Trump in his campaign against China may back down.
For example, the German magazine Der Spiegel said 8 May that a report by German intelligence shed doubt on US claims that the source of the virus is a Chinese lab, stating that the accusations are an attempt to distract from the US’s failure to control the pandemic. China could use this information to embarrass Germany if it supports Trump’s call to investigate the source of the virus.
Third, the Trump administration is under great pressure on the legitimacy of sanctions against Iran since they do not impact the regime’s policies, but instead cause more suffering for the people, because of the sanctions’ impact along with Covid-19 at the same time. China could participate in a humanitarian campaign, win favour with Iran, but without angering others that resent its attempts to allow Iran to continue nuclear and ballistic testing.
For example, the European Commission called for lifting sanctions for humanitarian reasons; UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet urged the US to lift sanctions on Iran and Venezuela, stressing that the health situation called for such a move in order to save lives.
These calls are usually popular around the globe, especially if they make a distinction between punishing Iran for its ambitious arm programmes and preventing sanctions from impacting the human rights of the Iranian people. China must pay close attention to this.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 May, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly