By Gordon G. Chang
April 15, 2021
On Sunday, Iranian officials confirmed an “incident”—a blackout—at their Natanz underground facility, where the Islamic Republic enriches uranium. Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization called the event a “terrorist action.”
The blackout occurredSaturday, at about the time Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced “133 national nuclear achievements and projects” at Natanz, including the installation of advanced centrifuges. He alsorevealed the installation of centrifuges at the Arak nuclear complex. The announcement, in the form of a statement, marked the country’s 15th “National Nuclear Technology Day.”
Rouhani spoke as Washington and Tehran talk to each other through European diplomats in Vienna, as both sides explore ways to revive the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—better known as the JCPOA, or Iran nuclear deal.
Tehran’s words, The Hill correctly remarked, “appeared to mark new violations of the Obama-era nuclear deal.”
The mullahs are now acting brazenly because they have a great-power sponsor publicly supporting them. For decades, China aided Tehran’s nuclear weapons ambitions, and the two regimes are now conspiring in plain sight. Their recent announcement of a 25-year “strategic partnership,” for example, appears to be an effort to create a bargaining chip for Iran in the ongoing negotiations in Austria.
As Washington and Tehran tussle in Europe, Beijing has come to Iran’s aid, blaming the U.S. at every opportunity. “I want to stress that the U.S. unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA is the root cause of the tension in the Iranian nuclear situation,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said at the regular press conference on April 2.
No. The U.S. withdrawal is not to blame. The “root cause” is Iran’s three-decade effort to surreptitiously build nuclear weapons. Rouhani can declare, as he did in his statement, that “all our nuclear facilities are peaceful,” but Iran’s regime has continually been acting as if it has had something to hide.
In 2017, for instance, Iran violated the JCPOA by effectively blocking International Atomic Energy Agency inspections of Parchin, the military facility close to Tehran, by announcing that military sites were off-limits.
President Trump, therefore, was right not to issue the Corker-Cardin certification of Iran’s compliance, which led to America’s withdrawal from the JCPOA in 2018. After the withdrawal, Iran exceeded the limitations on enrichment of uranium. Tehran announced it was leaving the pact last year.
What is the way forward in the Vienna talks? Iran insists the U.S. immediately remove all sanctions, while Washington promises to end these measures only if Tehran comes into compliance with the agreement.
Enter China. “The pressing task now is for the U.S. to lift all illegal sanctions against Iran and long-arm jurisdiction over a third party,” the Foreign Ministry’s Hua said. “This is an inherent requirement of the return to the JCPOA.”
To bolster Iran’s position, China has been buying increasing amounts of Iranian oil, in violation of American sanctions.
Moreover, on March 27, Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, signed a landmark 25-year deal. “Relations between the two countries have now reached the level of strategic partnership and China seeks to comprehensively improve relations with Iran,” Wang told the Iranian foreign minister. “Our relations with Iran will not be affected by the current situation, but will be permanent and strategic.”
“There is less to this ‘strategic partnership’ than meets the eye,” Afshin Molavi of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies told Newsweek.
“When it comes to China-Iran ties, you need to follow the money, not the memoranda of understanding. And when you follow the money, you’ll see that China always hesitates to go ‘all-in’ with Iran because Beijing fears the repercussions from the United States.”
Molavi notes that some of the most frustrated people in Iran are officials of the National Iranian Oil Company. “They often complain that China signs lots of deals, but engages in foot-dragging and fails to follow through,” he told this publication. Beijing’s China National Petroleum Corporation has been ejected from two projects in Iran for not following through. “Both of their deals were signed with great fanfare and news of strategic alliance,” says Molavi. “They slunk away quietly in both deals.”
As many point out, China and Iran are at this moment creating the appearance of cooperation. The strategic partnership arrangement has been under discussion since 2016, so significance lies in the timing of the signing.
Yet there may be more than mere optics this time. Hua Liming, a former Chinese ambassador to Iran, told Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post last month that in the past Beijing avoided getting too close to Tehran due to sensitivities, but “with fundamental changes in China-U.S. relations in recent months, that era has gone.”
“Fundamental changes?” Hua is probably referring to Beijing’s perception that the United States can no longer talk down to China, something that Wang’s boss, Yang Jiechi, made clear last month during the Anchorage, Alaska summit with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan.
Chinese leaders at the moment feel emboldened—so powerful that they can defy the United States and openly support the “atomic ayatollahs.” In the past, Beijing mostly stayed behind the scenes when using the Islamic Republic of Iran—or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea—as a proxy. Now, China is drawing back the curtain and openly bragging about just who is pulling the strings.
One of the “key geopolitical lessons of history” is that “outcasts will band together,” writes Ramesh Thakur of the Australian National University. Add in Russia, and the current band of rogues looks formidable.
“Potentially, the most dangerous scenario would be a grand coalition of China, Russia and perhaps Iran, an ‘anti-hegemonic’ coalition united not by ideology but by complementary grievances,” wrote Zbigniew Brzezinski in his 1997 book, The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives.
Brzezinski, like geopolitical thinkers Halford Mackinder and Nicholas Spykman, saw the landmass of Eurasia as the center of the international order. Whether one agrees with Mackinder’s “Heartland” theory or Spykman’s “Rimland” thesis, the world’s worst actors are, across that crucial area, joining together in a powerful grouping. After all, China and Iran just announced their “permanent” friendship.
Now, the pair is boldly taking on America.