China can help reason prevail in Iran dispute

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 April, 2006, 12:00am

The report by the head of the world's nuclear watchdog that Iran has failed to come clean about its nuclear activities was as predictable as Tehran's continued defiance of the United Nations Security Council, summed up in the words of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad before the report even came out: 'We don't give a damn.'

The director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, found that Iran is still enriching uranium and has stalled inquiries into its nuclear activities, which western countries fear are aimed at acquiring nuclear weapons. These developments raise the stakes in the standoff between the west and Tehran. It is a dangerous game for global security that will now be played out between Iran and its sympathisers and opponents among the permanent members of the security council.

On one side will be the United States and Britain, both concerned to hold the line against nuclear proliferation in a world living in the shadow of global terrorism; on the other China and Russia - also concerned, but reluctant to support UN action that could lead to sanctions and even military action because they have lucrative stakes in Iran's oil-rich economy.

All the players need to take a deep breath and refrain from provocation that is unhelpful to negotiation and diplomacy. The Iranian leader's pre-emptive defiance was not a good start. Nor was the comment by US ambassador to the UN John Bolton that if Iran continued to defy the world body, action could be taken 'within or without the security council'.

Like the White House's pointed refusal to take the military option off the table, this is a reminder of the US-led invasion of Iraq, without UN backing, that has undermined the world body's authority. It is to be hoped that US President George W. Bush has learned enough from Iraq to avoid launching another war.

His latest comment, that diplomacy has only just begun and that he wants to 'peacefully convince the Iranians they must give up their weapons ambitions', is more encouraging.

Amid the threats and defiance it is worth defining the issues. As a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Iran is entitled to develop nuclear energy. The west's fear that it is trying to develop nuclear weapons is based on Iran's record of lies and deception, and defiance of a UN moratorium on its nuclear activities.

The sense of alarm has been heightened by irresponsible comments from Mr Ahmadinejad, notably his repugnant call for Israel - a fellow member of the UN - to be wiped off the face of the Earth.

Iran now faces early moves in the security council to issue legally binding directives under Chapter 7 of the UN charter, which opens the way for resolutions allowing economic sanctions or even military action. Chapter 7 was used against Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

China has cautioned against going down this path, with its UN envoy pointing out that invoking Chapter 7 could lead to the 'worst scenario'. Beijing is right to insist that negotiations and diplomacy still offer the safest way forward. But if reason does not prevail, it is not enough for China to be able to say later, 'I told you so'. It must throw the full weight of its growing influence behind efforts to find a peaceful settlement.

It has a role to play, as a friend of Iran, in convincing Tehran that it can have security guarantees and nuclear energy but that it must first lay to rest fears about its intentions and once again accept international inspections of its nuclear facilities. A pause in its uranium enrichment would have powerful symbolic value. Above all, it must not be allowed to withdraw from the NPT. If China can play a role in getting the US and Iran to sit down and talk, that could be a diplomatic coup. And Washington could do with Tehran's help in restoring law and order in next-door Iraq.