Diplomacy the best way to handle Iran
No right-thinking government can oppose efforts to ensure that Iran does not develop nuclear weapons. Proliferation by rogue nations endangers regional and global peace and security. Years of dialogue and sanctions have not worked, though, so a new international strategy is needed. Making Iran's people or those of its trading partners suffer is not the answer.
So China's reluctance to sign up to tougher sanctions against Iran is understandable. US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner's recent visit to Beijing to enlist help in hitting Tehran's oil income by having Beijing cut what it pays for the fuel or reduce its imports appears to have fallen on deaf ears. He met Vice-President Xi Jinping , Premier Wen Jiabao and Vice-Premier Li Keqiang with the matter top of his agenda, but Chinese leaders were silent on the issue after the talks. Agreeing would have hurt Chinese and Iranians; China gets 22 per cent of its oil from Iran and is the nation's biggest crude buyer.
Beijing is not alone with such thinking. While the European Union is already committed to a ban on Iranian oil and Japan has agreed to reduce imports, India says it will not and Russia remains a firm opponent. But that does not mean Iran's oil customers support what would appear to be efforts to enrich uranium to near weapons-grade quality. China and Russia have consistently backed UN Security Council resolutions calling on Iran to halt its activities.
Tensions between Iran and its rivals, particularly the US, are escalating. The Iranian government has blamed Israel for the reported death of a fourth nuclear scientist in two years. It has threatened to close its oil shipping route, the Strait of Hormuz, and warned the US to keep its aircraft carriers out of the region. In the wake of Washington's decision on December 30 to impose sanctions on financial institutions dealing with Iran's central bank, Tehran announced it had started enriching uranium at a second facility.
Judging by history, economic sanctions do not work in convincing a government to change its ways; South Africa under apartheid is one of the few exceptions. Only with widespread support will they be effective and when it comes to Iran, that is clearly not the case. Punishing countries that do not back such moves will have dire diplomatic consequences. A better way to end Iran's errant ways has to be found.
International co-ordinated pressure through the UN is still the best approach. China and Russia, as trading partners, have leverage and must help push Iran to be transparent about its nuclear programme. As the government is more vulnerable than at any other time in its 32-year history, with deep political divisions and a woeful economy, there is a better-than-ever chance that it will listen. Diplomacy, not sanctions, force or the threat of war offer the best opportunity.