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China's Behind-the-Scenes Role in the Iran Nuclear Talks

January 10, 2022
IranWire
5 min read
China's Behind-the-Scenes Role in the Iran Nuclear Talks

Wang Qun, the Chinese negotiator and Ambassador of the Permanent Mission of China to the United Nations, is not as well known to the public as his Russian counterpart, Mikhail Ulyanov. The latter tweets a lot and makes plenty of headlines. Qun, however, is best distinguished from other diplomats at official functions by the bow tie he regularly wears.

China and Russia have no formal role in the nuclear talks between Iran and the P4+1 group. They do not send their deputy foreign ministers to Vienna. But both have an interest in the outcome, and whenever the talks reach a stalemate, one or other intervenes to bring the two most important parties, namely Iran and the United States, back to the (indirect) negotiating table. In this, Qun has a crucial part to play.

Ali Bagheri Kani, Iran's deputy foreign minister, does not presently travel to China; the latter is not receiving foreign guests due to the coronavirus pandemic. But the two countries stay in touch through other means and for more than a decade, Chinese diplomats have been playing a substantial role in the JCPOA talks.

China’s Motive for Saving the Nuclear Deal

Chinese individuals, and both state-owned and private companies, are severely affected by the ongoing sanctions imposed on Iran. There have been some documented efforts to circumvent them by Beijing, which is traditionally the biggest buyer of Iranian crude oil, to the extent that some Chinese refineries were designed and manufactured specifically to suit the nature of Iranian crude. These refineries have no choice but to keep buying from Iran, sanctions or no sanctions. Iran sells its sanctioned oil to China at lower prices, but with great difficulty, through such risky methods as ship-to-ship transfers at sea.

Entities found to be flouting sanctions can be subjected to fines. Without sanctions the country could also receive Iranian oil more conveniently, via ports. In addition, last spring Beijing signed a 25-year agreement with Tehran in which it committed to buying Iranian oil at cut-price rates for 25 years. The massively controversial pact paved the way for far greater Chinese influence over Iranian infrastructure projects, from highways and railways to the internet and aerospace, as well as investment in mineral and oil extraction. 

Russia is also trying to consolidate its position in the Gulf states at a time when the United States is on the retreat from the region. Both countries officially cooperate with the US while indirectly competing with one another for influence in Iran and neighboring countries. The JCPOA is also seen in Moscow as an opportunity for Russia to bolster contact with Western countries, by positing itself as a mediator. This has become especially important after relations with European states and the US deteriorated due to Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea in Ukraine.

 

What Did China Advise Iran to do Before Sanctions?

Before the Iranian nuclear file was referred to the UN Security Council, Britain, France, Switzerland and Germany were arguably the most important mediators between Iran and the US. China and Russia have since sought to take up that mantle. Before Iran’s nuclear program was raised in the Security Council, China also had an advisory role to the program.

In the 2000s, the Iranian nuclear project took on the contours of an international crisis. The Chinese foreign minister visited Tehran and met with Hassan Rouhani, then the main official responsible for the program. In his diaries, Rouhani writes that the visiting delegation advised Iranian decision-makers to follow China’s example and abandon its nuclear program for a period of time, during which the country could work on strengthening its economy. Then, they said, if necessary, Iran could reengage with the US in negotiating on nuclear projects.

The Islamic Republic disregarded this advice. The regime kept enriching uranium after only the briefest of pauses, ratcheting up tensions with the rest of the world, and in the subsequent decade has been mostly under crushing sanctions as a result.

China’s Role in the JCPOA Talks

For the 22 months in which Tehran was negotiating with the then-P5+1 countries before the JCPOA was signed, China appeared to have an only marginal role. But Mohammad Javad Zarif, the then-Iranian foreign minister, presents a different picture in his six-volume treatise on the nuclear talks, The Sealed Secret. Zarif writes that whenever negotiations reached a dead end, the Chinese Foreign Minister would present an initiative to get them going again.

China’s role in the negotiations has changed. One keen to facilitate talks between Tehran and Washington as a permanent member of the Security Council, the Chinese government today seeks to salvage the nuclear pact for its own ends. For this reason, Wang Qun cooperates with his Russian counterpart and rival, temporarily putting aside differences with America over trade issues and disagreements over Taiwan and the South China Sea, and negotiating for hours with Robert Malley, the American special envoy for Iran, at the Palais Coburg Hotel in Vienna. Whenever negotiations seem to reach a dead end, Qun intervenes to salvage the deal, and the Russian ambassador suddenly announces that they are “back on track”.

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