As U.S. Confronts Iran Over Nukes, China Offers a Lesson

Even as China poses an obstacle to tough sanctions, columnists say U.S.-Sino history provides clues on handling Iran

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Iran meets with Western nations today to discuss its controversial nuclear program. Some commentators have predicted that Iran's newly revealed secret nuclear program could realign the world powers. How will China react? And what will China's reaction mean for Western engagement with Iran? More than you might think, according to some China and Iran experts.

  • Learn From Nixon's China Diplomacy  Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett write in the New York Times that Obama should engage Iran as Nixon once did with China. "He would demonstrate acceptance of the Islamic Republic, even as problematic Iranian behavior continued in the near term," they write. "After taking office in 1969, Nixon directed the C.I.A. to stop covert operations in Tibet and ordered the Navy to stop its regular patrols of the Taiwan Strait even while China was supplying weapons to kill American soldiers in Vietnam. President Obama has had several opportunities to send analogous signals to Tehran — such as ending Bush-era covert programs against Iran — but has punted."
  • We Wrongly Demonized Communists Then, Muslims Now  The Nation's Robert Scheer suggests that America erred in vilifying China and forswearing the possibility of peaceful coexistence a generation ago--and believes we're making a similar mistake with Iran. "Communism once was, as the Islamic terrorist threat is today, presented as an undifferentiated revolutionary impulse that could never be diplomatically accommodated without sacrificing our own security or, indeed, our freedom," he writes. "All communists in the Cold War era, like all Islamic radicals today, were assumed to be part of a unified internationalist movement bent on world conquest. [...] The limits of demonology as a substitute for thoughtful foreign policy are amply on display in the approach to Iran as the purported leading agent of Islamic terrorism."
  • China Could Turn Against Iran  The New Yorker's Evan Osnos debunked Western assumptions that Beijing supports Tehran. "Tehran's missiles and nuke development are at the top of Chinese news broadcasts this week, and the tone of the coverage suggests that Chinese leaders are facing a more complex choice than in the past. 'China Could Take More Initiative on the Iran Issue' was the headline Tuesday in the Global Times, a stridently nationalist state-run paper," Osnos reports. "China's conundrum is that its goal is at odds with its tactics: The Chinese leadership has no interest whatsoever in Iran building a bomb, but so far Beijing sees no imminent strategic benefit to move in that direction at the risk of losing valuable oil assets and a friend in the Gulf."
  • Iran, as China Once Was, is Unfairly Maligned  Juan Cole argued that U.S.-Chinese relations prove that we can peacefully engage Iran. "Iranian politicians are rational actors," he insists. "If they were madmen, why haven't they invaded any of their neighbors? Saddam Hussein of Iraq invaded both Iran and Kuwait. Israel invaded its neighbors more than once. In contrast, Iran has not started any wars. Demonizing people by calling them unbalanced is an old propaganda trick. The U.S. elite was once unalterably opposed to China having nuclear science because they believed the Chinese are intrinsically irrational. This kind of talk is a form of racism."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.