Help With Iran: Forget It!

In case you haven’t noticed, the deteriorating relationship between the United States and China is turning out to be the major story of 2010. Quite apart from tensions on trade and the currency, new issues are popping up every day, and old issues like Taiwan that have not been in the news for some time are resurfacing.

It all started with the decision by the Obama Administration last year to slap tariffs on tires made in China. That was followed by a similar decision with respect to steel tubes at the end of the year.

In Copenhagen, the dialogue between the two leading economies of the world degenerated to the point where Premier Wen Jiabao avoided meeting with President Obama on two occasions.

Two weeks ago, a new issue arose regarding the Internet as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for China to investigate cyber attacks on search giant Google after the company said email accounts of human rights activists had been hacked. In addition, President Barack Obama is expected to meet soon with the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, who is deemed a separatist by Beijing. And to top it off, the Pentagon notified Congress this past Friday that it intends to sell $6.4 billion of arms to Taiwan. Needless to say, the Chinese are furious about all of these statements and actions by the United States.

The United States, of course, is the world’s leading economy and superpower, and as such, can say anything it wants; meet with anyone it wants; and sell anything it wants to any buyer it chooses. That’s not the point. The point is that the failure of the Obama Administration to constructively engage China now threatens to hurt the efforts of the United States to deal with very difficult issues like Iran.

Even without the friction that has surfaced between the United States and China over the past few months, Iran was going to be a thorny issue. Premier Wen Jiabao made this very clear in October 2009 when he said in a meeting with visiting Iranian Vice President Reza Rahimi that, “The Sino-Iran relationship has witnessed rapid development, as the two countries’ leaders have had frequent exchanges, and cooperation in trade and energy has widened and deepened.” In exchange for guaranteed supplies of oil and natural gas, China has pledged billions of dollars in energy-infrastructure investment in Iran.

Most observers concluded from Wen’s statement that China would not support efforts to impose sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program, and that such positive statements undermine any expectations that China would support U.S. sanctions against Iran within the United Nations Security Council. In this context, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s warning in Paris last week that China risks diplomatic isolation and economic uncertainty if it doesn’t join the push to further sanction Iran for its nuclear program, is likely to fall on deaf ears in Beijing.

Secretary Clinton said:

As we move away from the engagement track that has not produced the result that some had hoped for, and move forward the pressure and sanctions track, China will be under a lot of pressure to recognize the destabilizing impact that a nuclear-armed Iran would have in the Gulf [region] from which they receive a significant percent of its oil supplies.

That may be true, but someone in the Obama Administration had better figure out pretty soon how to deal with China if it wants the country’s cooperation on key global issues. It’s not about who’s right. It’s about getting something done.

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