The elections in Tunisia and the dramatic demise of former Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi have pushed the allegations of an Iran-sponsored plot to assassinate the Saudi envoy to Washington on U.S. soil from the headlines. But countering Iran's efforts to develop a nuclear weapon and exploit the tumult in the Arab world for its own gain is vital to securing U.S. interests in a rapidly changing Middle East, and remains an urgent priority of U.S. diplomacy around the world.
Inevitably, efforts to isolate Iran will refocus Washington and Europe's attention on Beijing. Past attempts to persuade China to support new measures against Tehran -- or even robust enforcement of existing ones -- have met with little success, in large part due to a misunderstanding of Chinese motivations. Whereas Washington tends to see Beijing as torn between conflicting priorities, Chinese strategists see the Islamic Republic as a potential partner in their strategic rivalry with the United States. Unless Beijing can be convinced that the costs of obstructing U.S. efforts on Iran outweigh the benefits of doing so, the Chinese will be of little help. Shifting China's calculus in this manner ultimately requires that the United States develop a credible military option to neutralize Iran's nuclear-weapons aims.
For three decades, U.S. diplomats have failed to secure real Chinese cooperation in their efforts to prevent Iran from going nuclear. Although Beijing has formally supported U.N. Security Council sanctions resolutions against Iran since 2005, it has at the same time actively undermined those measures by watering them down in council deliberations and then implementing them only weakly and unevenly. According to the Washington Post, a senior U.S. official handed over to his Chinese counterparts in October 2010 a "significant list" of Chinese firms thought to be aiding Iranian proliferation in violation of U.N. sanctions.
The effects are pernicious. Increasing Chinese trade with Iran -- projected to reach $40 billion in 2011, up from $30 billion last year, according to the Chinese ambassador to Iran -- eases the pressure on Tehran and provides the Iranian regime with revenue, expertise, and other resources. It also leads to howls of protest by European and Asian firms that have curtailed their business with Iran only to see it backfilled by Chinese competitors.
Chinese trade with Iran is driven in large part by Beijing's growing need for energy imports, and its desire to secure them by participating in oil and gas exploration, development, and other "upstream" activities of its overseas energy suppliers. Indeed, from a security perspective, Iran's geographic position is unique -- it is the only Gulf supplier that China can reach by both pipelines and sea routes. This diversification of supply lines helps reassure those in Beijing who most fear a foreign interdiction campaign or blockade that would cut China off from its energy supplies.