In dealing with the Islamic Republic of Iran, as with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, China confronts yet another exquisite dilemma, albeit of a somewhat different type. Unlike Pyongyang, Tehran is not a long-time ally and critical security buffer along the Chinese border. It is, however, a major political and economic player in a region of increasing importance to Beijing, a significant source of vital oil supplies, and a close friend among developing nations. Unfortunately, as with Pyongyang, it is also most likely acquiring nuclear weapons capabilities in defiance of most of the international community and directly threatening the vital interests of the United States and the West. Hence, as with North Korea, the Chinese leadership must walk a diplomatic and political tightrope in its policies toward Iran, in this instance seeking to maintain increasingly lucrative and strategically useful economic and political ties to a major power and friend in a critical region of the world. At the same time, it must support international efforts to sustain the global nonproliferation regime, prevent the further destabilization of a highly volatile and critical region, and avoid antagonizing the United States and other key powers.
This essay first examines China’s interests and policies toward Iran, especially as they affect the United States. It then takes a close look at the lines of apparent debate within China on the Iran nuclear issue and Chinese policy, and concludes with a few general observations.