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China's Alliance With Iran Grows Contrary to U.S. Hopes

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by Richard Fisher, Jr.
Published on May 20th, 2006


The United States has staked a great deal on China in the past few years. The hope in Washington has been that Beijing, now a "responsible stakeholder" in international relations, will do her part to pressure both North Korea and Iran to abandon their nuclear programs.

To be fair, China has spoken in moderate tones, agreeing that neither state should become nuclear and even arranged a series of teas, known as the "six party talks" to discuss the Korean issue. On Iran she has appears to have persuaded Undersecretary of State Zoellick and perhaps the Secretary of State and the President as well, that the USSR is the real obstacle, and that if the Kremlin can only be won over, then somehow Beijing will fall into line. China has offered to set up tea parties for Iran too, perhaps under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

But China’s actions are very different from her words. She is deeply involved in creating an extensive land line of communication across central Asia[1], connecting eastern Iran with western China—the distance is about 700 miles, Boston to Detroit or Paris to Prague, not an immense distance. The amount of cement poured, tunnels blasted, and men employed suggests that securing this land is no passing fancy. Rather it is long term strategic construction. It will, after all, cross no bodies of water where the US Navy might be encountered, and lies beyond the range of carrier based aircraft.

Likewise, words aside, few signs have been given that China is actually pressuring North Korea (or Iran) the way the United States pressured both South Korea (once) and Taiwan (twice) to abandon their nuclear programs.

Washington is certainly not capable of dealing with either of these crises on her own. She is under intense pressure from Israel to attack Iran, an action that would lead to unfathomable consequences. Politically, President Bush’s popularity ratings have plummeted because, as Karl Rove opines, of the war in Iraq. That war may finish successfully, but it is not turning out as the administration predicted, and public opinion is moving against it.

So the "China option" becomes appealing, not only to the United States, but also to China, for as long as Washington believes that Beijing has the key that will release the administration from its political problems, China will have enormous leverage on the United States, and is using it.

Supreme National Security Council Secretary General Ari Larijiani and Foreign Minister Li Xiaoxing: Here meeting Chinese Foreign Minister Li Xiaoxing in January 2006, in 2005, then Presidential candidate Larijani stated, “Iran and China could lead the region and they have the potential to do so.” Credit: Xinhua

Taiwan Concessions For Iran Help?

In Taipei some Taiwanese officials believed that President Bush’s offer of the most limited "stopover" on his way to Latin America, causing Taiwan President Chen Shui Bien to refuse to do so on May 3, was the consequence of Chinese pressure on Washington, and a fear that being more generous to Chen would jeopardize Chinese cooperation regarding Washington’s desire to halt Iran’s nuclear program.[2] While on May 11, Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick appeared to justify the U.S. move to counter "independence" tendencies in Taiwan[3], the suspicion of linkage to China’s cooperation on Iran still lingers.[4]

So once again the hope arises that if only Taiwan can be dealt with, China will become a reasonable country. But Chinese history shows that China looks after what she perceives as her own interests, not those of the United States. If there is a hope held by some in Washington that China would support the U.S. in exchange for concessions over Taiwan, that runs counter to decades of consistent Chinese support for Iran. As it has demonstrated amply in the case of North Korea, China has often stated its preference to keep the Iran crisis out of the UNSC and has also stated its opposition to UNSC sanctions.

One should ask the question: On which of the following two objectives has China spent more energy and exerted more muscle. One: preventing the supply of nuclear fuel and technology to North Korean and Iranian reactors OR, Two: preventing the supply of aviation fuel to the aircraft carrying President Chen Shuibian of Taiwan on his travels a week ago? The answer should be obvious.

China has provided both direct and indirect support for Iran’s nuclear weapon program and is a major supplier of non-nuclear military technology. It seems more the case that Beijing’s goal is to avoid sanctions or even war, to be better placed to emerge as perhaps Iran’s most important economic and strategic partner, which would eventually include more active military cooperation. China does not make any effort to curb the dangers Iran poses to the world, from threatening to use its nuclear weapons against Israel[5], to proliferating nuclear know-how to Sudan[6] and Venezuela.[7]

The fact is that China has her own foreign policy, one which opposes that of the United States, and grasps that a nuclear Korea and a nuclear Iran will greatly complicate Washington’s strategic situation. If the Straits of Hormuz are closed, after all, not only Iranian, but Saudi and Kuwaiti and other oil flows will be halted.

Beijing, which has a smoldering Muslim problem in its own West, has long sought to develop relations with Islamic powers, especially since the late 1980s when it likely saw it would become increasingly dependent on imported petroleum. Beijing is now seeking to become strategically indispensable to both Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite Iran .This approach serves Beijing’s interest in securing greater access to that region’s petroleum and displacing American power. It may also be intended to serve an ambition to eclipse Moscow in shaping a new Chinese-led strategic arc that includes Iran, Russia, Pakistan, the Central Asian republics, and the ultimate prize, India.

In the past the United States has been able to use economic and military sanctions to strengthen its hand. But China now has nearly a trillion dollars in foreign reserves, earned from trade with the United States and the rest of the world, and weapons for export that, based mostly on advanced ex-Soviet models, with Western European, Israeli, and American help, that even if not quite as good as their U.S counterparts, are highly capable.

Petroleum Imperative

China’s unwillingness to pressure Iran over its nuclear ambitions is in part explained by China’s growing reliance on Iranian petroleum to sustain the economic growth that preserves Chinese regime stability. According to a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) report released in August 2005, in 2004 China relied on imports to meet 43 percent of its oil needs, or about 3 million barrels a day. DOE predicts that China’s foreign oil dependence could rise to over 10 million barrels a day by 2025.[8]

China’s use of energy is enormously inefficient. Per unit of energy, she produces half the value that India does and about one fifteenth of what Japan does, according to a recently published official Chinese book. She is likewise wasteful of water, using ten times as much per unit of production as does Japan. The fact is that if China could take her energy efficiency to the dizzying heights already conquered by Japan, she would not need petroleum imports. But that seems unlikely.

Currently Iran is said to meet 14 percent of China’s demand while Saudi Arabia meets about 17 percent. China is also pursuing several petroleum cooperation initiatives that could make Iran its dominant supplier. As of late February, in part to preempt any potential UN sanctions, China and Iran were said to be close to concluding a series of deals outlined in an October 2004 memorandum now estimated to cost $100 billion.[9] One part of the deal involves the sale of 10 million tons of liquefied natural gas for 25 years; Iran has the second largest reserves of natural gas after Russia. In another part, China’s Sinopec Corporation would develop Iran’s Yadavaran oil fields to include the construction of petroleum and natural gas processing facilities. Sinopec would then have the rights to secure 50 percent of the field’s production.

Iran also figures into China’s larger thrust for Central Asian petroleum resources. Iran and China also have plans to construct a 386km pipeline to take Iranian oil to the Caspian Sea to enable linkages to another Chinese-Kazakhstan pipeline now under construction. On January 18 China Oilfield Services Ltd. signed a three-year contact to manage and repair the Alborz semi-floating platform, that Iran will use to explore for oil in deeper areas of the Caspian Sea beyond the 90m depth capability of its current platforms there. Observers are watching whether Iran’s placement of this platform will test its territorial dispute with neighboring Azerbaijan.[10]

Nuclear Delay, And…

While China does not yet have with Iran the decisive leverage to enforce its diplomacy-of-delay that it has used to protect its ally North Korea, as it mollifies Washington, it is highly likely that Beijing will continue to use its leverage to prevent economic sanctions and military strikes against Iran. For Beijing there is no contradiction in having its foreign policy spokesmen both oppose Iran having nuclear weapons while at the same time opposing economic and military sanctions against Iran to compel it to end its nuclear weapons programs, and covertly aiding its nuclear capabilities. Contrary to Western nuclear non-proliferation "values" China has proven it will abet such proliferation to advance its interests.[11]

The latest twist in the U.S. and European led diplomatic effort to forge international unity over Iran may end up aiding China’s proven strategies of delay. On May 16 China announced its public support for an EU initiative to sell Iran light water nuclear power technologies in exchange for Iran’s halting uranium enrichment on its soil.[12] On May 1 Iran revealed that it had succeeded in achieving 4.8 percent Uranium enrichment, not enough weapons production but a demonstration of Iran’s growing ability to complete the nuclear fuel cycle. The danger, amply demonstrated in the case of North Korea, is that such agreements end up "ratifying" nuclear weapons development already in place, while failing to stop covert activities, during which time there is a breakdown in negotiating unity in the Western camp, allowing China and Russia push for greater "leadership," which only gives Iran more time to perfect its nuclear weapons capability. Or in layman’s terms, given some delay, which will be forthcoming, Iran will get the bomb.

China’s official position is to insist that Iran live up to its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. But as Iran proceeded to abandon its NPT obligations in early 2006 it became clear that Tehran was proceeding in coordination with China. On January 9, the day before Iran removed International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) seals at its Uranium enrichment plant at Natanz, Deputy Foreign Minister Mehdi Safari met in Beijing with Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing and Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui. A statement released later said, "Zhang reiterated the principled position of the Chinese side on properly settling the Iranian nuclear issue through diplomatic negotiation. Safari briefed Zhang about the views and considerations of the Iranian side in this respect." The next day, as Iran’s actions became known, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman stressed, "We believe that the Iranian nuclear issue should be resolved within the framework of IAEA." And just prior to the IAEA meeting at the end of January, on January 26, Ari Larijani, Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, and its chief nuclear negotiator, visited Beijing.[13]

Ari Larijani In Beijing, January 2006: A picture of the Iranian and Chinese teams meeting in Beijing. Credit: Xinhua

Then on January 30, when it had little choice but to be isolated, China joined the U.S., Russia and the European Community in the IAEA to report Iran to the United Nations Security Council, as a potential prelude to seeking sanctions for its abrogation of Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty. But then on February 4 China’s Ambassador to the UN Wang Guangya said "I think, as a matter of principle, China never supports sanctions as a way of exercising pressure because it is always the people that would be hurt." This remained China’s position through the month of May. On May 2, as the U.S., along with Britain and France, was introducing a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution regarding Iran’s rogue nuclear program, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said of China and Russia, "The thing these two countries have officially told us and expressed in diplomatic negotiations is their opposition to sanctions and military attacks."[14]

Military attack, it should be noted, is probably a false option. But at 630,000 square miles, Iran is three times the size of France. Iran has had many years to build redundancy into and disburse its nuclear weapons making facilities into underground sites. Its quest for nuclear weapons is also matched by its great investment in conventional military power. And furthermore, Iran has signaled its willingness to attack Israel at the commencement of hostilities and some in the U.S. fear Iran will also respond with a campaign of international terrorism.[15] It seems unlikely that anything short of disastrous total war could disarm her—and even then, not for long.

Nuclear Help

As it has been the case with North Korea, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, Iran has received discreet Chinese exports of nuclear and/or missile technologies, making Beijing indispensable to Iran’s ruling elites. In October 1997 China promised to Washington that it would halt its nuclear technology sales to Iran, such as a plant in Isfahan that was to convert processed Uranium, or "Yellowcake," in Uranium Hexafloride gas (UF6) for conversion into Uranium that could be used for nuclear fuel or nuclear weapons.[16] Iran was apparently able to complete the Isfahan conversion facility by using Chinese designs. And in May 2006 Western sources have reported that Iran may have used Chinese-provided UF6 to test its reprocessing centrifuges, whereas its own UF6 may have had impurities that would have damaged its centrifuges. As such, it is believed that China enabled Iran to achieve a potential diplomatic coup. By claiming it had mastered the Uranium reprocessing cycle, Iran now has a stronger case to make in subsequent negotiations that it can retain this capability[17], and thus, through subterfuge, can sustain its nuclear weapons making capability.

Chinese Nuclear Help: Iranian-made “Yellowcake” at the Isfahan Uranium reprocessing plant, seen during a 2004 visit by a delegation of “Non-aligned” countries. Chinese designs enabled Iran to complete the Isfahan plant after October 1997. Reports also indicate that Chinese-provided UF6 was used to test Iran’s centrifuges to prove it had mastered the Uranium reprocessing cycle. Credit: Internet source

Chinese nuclear technology assistance may have continued after 1997. In 2005 alone the Iranian Council for National Resistance has accused China of selling Iran beryllium useful for nuclear triggers and maraging steel (twice as hard as stainless steel) critical for fabricating bomb casings and centrifuges needed to reprocess Uranium into bomb-grade material.[18] China’s nuclear assistance is also "indirect," meaning that it derives a growing network of nuclear and missile cooperation between North Korea, Pakistan and Iran, which in turn, have benefited from Chinese inputs. For example, in late 2004 the CIA indicated that Iran may have received nuclear weapon component designs via the A.Q Khan network.[19] Then in late 2005 Iranian sources disclosed that Khan had given them designs for fabricating the Uranium "pit" for a nuclear weapon.[20] The suspicion is that A.Q Khan provided Iran some or all of the same nuclear weapon plans he sold to Libya, which came from Chinese nuclear bomb designs Pakistan obtained in the 1980s.[21]

Ballistic Missile Help

From the first proliferation report issued by the U.S. Intelligence Community in 1997 to comply with "Section 721" of the FY 1997 Intelligence Authorization Act, to the most recent issued in May 2006, there has been continuous reporting on aid by "Chinese entitites" to Iran’s ballistic missile programs. Though Iran has received significant missile technology from North Korea and Russia, in recent years China has been suspected of being one source of Iran’s developing solid fuel missile technologies that could help it develop versions of its Shahib series with sufficient range reach Europe. The 1,500km range Shahib-3 has reportedly benefited from Chinese guidance technology, though much more assistance came via North Korea’s No Dong, which also in turn benefited from Chinese help.

Shahib 3: Seen being launched during late March 2006 exercises, the Shahib 3 is derived from the North Korean No Dong, which was in turn assisted by China. Source: Internet

Iran’s military long-range ballistic missile program may also benefit from growing space cooperation with China. In October 2005 Iran joined the Bejing-led Asia Pacific Space Cooperation Organization, which will facilitate cooperation in satellite and space technologies.[22] In November 2005 Iranian officials are reported to have said that "in cooperation with China" Iran will develop and launch what may be a new communication satellite.[23] Iran is known to have at least four satellite programs. Data that China might provide in areas of satellite mating for space launch vehicles as well as launch vehicle staging could accelerate Iran’s ambition to develop longer-range ICBMs. Iran may follow the example of North Korea, which benefited from Chinese assistance to complete its three-stage Taepodong space-launch vehicle, provocatively launched over Japan in August 1998.

Space Ambitions: A model of an Iranian space launch vehicle. Potential Chinese assistance to Iran’s future space launch vehicles could ease their development of ICBMs. Source: Internet

Cruise Missile Help

Iran may also be in possession of a new 1,000+ km range land attack cruise missile (LACM). According to a recent report out of India, it was developed from the Russian Raduga Kh-55, obtained from the Ukraine by way of a deal arranged by Pakistan’s A.Q. Khan, and financed by Iran, with Chinese assistance along the way.[24] This report notes that between May and August 2001, Iran received 12 Kh-55s, while two went to Pakistan and six went to China.[25] Revelations out of the Ukraine in early 2005 put the numbers at six Kh-55s to Iran and six to China.[26] While it is not clear how much exchange of technology and information there was between Iran, Pakistan and China, obtaining the Kh-55 was apparently instrumental for Iran’s and Pakistan’s LACM programs, while China had been developing its own family of LACMs since the 1970s. Nevertheless, there is a marked similarity between the Kh-55 and the Chinese YJ-62, revealed during the summer of 2005, and the Pakistani Babur, first tested in August 2005. Iran’s version of the Kh-55 is apparently called the Ghadr[27], but its existence has yet to be confirmed by Iranian or U.S. government revelations. Possession of a LACM of a size and capability similar to the Kh-55 will give Iran the ability to launch regional strikes from land, air and sea platforms, and enable an alternate means to strike Europe when launched from long-range fighter-bombers like the Su-24 or F-14A.[28] Should China help Iran’s LACM obtain an anti-ship capability like the YJ-62, then Iran could potentially attack U.S. naval forces far from the Persian Gulf or strike the U.S. airbase on Diego Garcia.

Cruise Missile Family? An Indian reports indicates that the Pakistani Babur, the Chinese YJ-62 and the Iranian Ghadr are derived from the Russian Kh-55 obtained via cooperation between Iran and A.Q. Khan. Source: Internet

Sustaining Iran’s Conventional Military Forces

The Bush Administration has recently urged there be a ban on the export of weapons and military dual-use technologies to Iran.[29] Such an objective would require that China and Russia, along with the Ukraine and Europe, end lucrative military sales and dual-use technology programs. China and Russia have largely aided Iran’s goal to develop self-sufficiency in missile and conventional weapons production where possible. The last decade has seen increasing exports of Russian weapons to Iran, to include MiG-29 fighters (@35), Sukhoi Su-24 (32-35) and Su-25 attack fighters (@7), KILO conventional submarines (3) and very soon, TOR-M1 short-range anti-aircraft missiles.[30] China has instead sold Iran the ability to make several tactical and surface-to-air missiles, and possibly very fast missile ships, all of which would be needed to oppose U.S. air and naval forces that might attack its nuclear facilities. Over the next decade, however, it is possible Iran turn to increasingly competitive Chinese weapon platforms and other military technologies.

Russian Sukhoi Su-24: Iran has about 30 of these potent Soviet-era fighter-bombers. Some have been modified to carry the Chinese-designed Noor/C-802 anti-ship cruise missile, and could probably be modified to launch new long-range LACMs. Source: Internet

Obtaining Spare Parts

Overcoming great odds, Iran has succeed in not only maintaining, but also improving upon many of the Grumman F-14A Tomcat , McDonnell Douglas F-4D/E Phantom and Northrop F-5A/D/E/F fighters sold to the former Shah’s regime. Many of these fighters will be available to oppose potential U.S. airstrikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities due in part to Chinese and some Russian help. A recent estimate holds that up to 44 of Iran’s F-14As, out of 79 delivered before 1979, may be "operational." In addition, Iran may also have succeeded in keeping a significant number of the 200km range AIM-54 Phoenix air-to-air missile (AAM), which out-ranges all current U.S. AAMs.[31] It should be assumed that starting in the 1980s that Iran started sharing what was at the time advanced U.S. aircraft and missile technology with Russia and China, in exchange for nuclear and missile technology, and access to new conventional weapons. But Iran has also created a large network of operatives to purchase and steal parts to maintain its U.S.-made weapons, 30 percent of which came from the U.S. according to a 2000 report.[32]

China has apparently played a substantial role in Iran’s network of theft and smuggling to maintain its U.S.-made arsenal. In 1995 Iran expert Ken Timmerman reported that U.S. Customs officials told him that "Chinese middlemen and front companies [were] deeply involved in a vast military aircraft spare parts pipeline to Iran."[33] In 1999 the Cox Commission reported that between 1996 and 1997 the Los Angeles U.S. Customs Service seized over 500 electron tubes for the F-14A on their way to Hong Kong.[34] These were likely for the fighter’s AN/AWG-9 radar. And then in February 2003 the U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ) indicted Jinghua Zhuang and Xiuwen Liang, of the California-based Maytone International, for seeking export parts for the F-14, AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missile, HAWK surface-to-air missile and the TOW anti-tank missile.[35] While the DoJ only hinted that Iran might be the final destination for F-14 parts, it is also the case that Iran would be seeking parts for these missiles, which were purchased from the U.S. before 1979.

F-14A and F-4E: Iran has succeeded sustaining significant numbers of its combat aircraft obtained from the United States under the former Shah in large part to its success in fabricating and stealing parts—with some help from China. Source: Internet

Aiding Iran’s Military Self Sufficiency

But Iran’s ultimate goal is to build up its weapons development and production sectors to reach self sufficiency. While this effort has seen increasing success regarding ballistic missiles and tactical missiles, it also extends to aircraft, warships, submarines and armor. Regarding aircraft, in 2003 one expert observed that "Iranian specialists learned reverse engineering from the Chinese."[36] It is likely that Russia and the Ukraine have also aided Iran’s aviation sector. Such help likely contributed to Iran’s ability to modify older single-seat U.S. F-5A fighters into twin-seat F-5B Simorgh supersonic trainers, and to develop a new version of the F-5E, called the Owj Saegheh. The indigenous Shafagh subsonic-speed fighter concept unveiled in 2002 was reportedly designed in cooperation with the Russian Mukhemedov Bureau, showing some similarity to the Mikoyan Vityaz stealth fighter concept.[37] However it also shows some resemblance to the Chinese Hongdu L-15 trainer, which according to some speculation may replace the Shafagh after Russian design assistance ended.

Suspicion that China’s Hongdu may be helping with Iranian aircraft design follows from its proven willingness to help Iran develop new tactical missiles. At the 2004 Zhuhai Airshow it was revealed that Hongdu and Iran had developed two tactical missiles that could be used for anti-ship or precision ground-attack missions. These included the 35km range radar-guided Nasr (JJ/TL-6B) and the 18km range optically-guided Kosar (JJ/TL-10A).[38] China has already sold Iran the means to make larger 120km range Noor, a copy of the YJ-82/C-802 anti-ship cruise missile. The Noor has been modified to be carried by Iran’s Su-24 fighter bombers.[39] In 2003 it was revealed that Iran was able to produce a new short-range SAM called the Shahab Thaqueb, a version of the Chinese HQ-7/FM-90 that in turn is copied from the French Crotale.[40] In February 2006 Iran announced a new shoulder-launched SAM called the Mithaq-2, which appears to be a modified version of the Chinese QW-1.[41]

Nasr and Kosr: These two tactical missiles are the product of a cooperation program between Iran and the Chinese Hongdu Aircraft Company. Source: RD Fisher

During the late March 2006 Holy Prophet Iranian naval and air exercises, it was revealed that Iran also had a radar-guided version of the Chinese C-701, a 15-20km range anti ship.[42] It was shown on Iranian TV being launched from a truck as a coastal-defense missile, but it will also likely arm the 19-ton "China Cat" fast-attack missile ships. Iran may purchase up to 10 of these small but very fast 50-knot speed attack craft, and possibly build many more in Iran. Also shown during the Holy Prophet exercise was the launch of a Noor anti-ship missile from a Mi-17 helicopter.

China Cat: Iran may in the future produce large numbers of the “China Cat” 50-knot speed missile armed catamaran. Source: RD Fisher

It is also possible that there was some Chinese assistance with another revelation of the Holy Prophet exercise: the Hoot, an Iranian rocket-torpedo that resembles the Russian VA-111 Shkval.[43] Such an underwater missile travels fast enough to punch a hole through most U.S. warships, and the U.S. Navy has little defense against this weapon. Iranian TV footage confirmed the Hoot’s basic similarity to the Shkval, leading to speculation it may have been sold via Russia or Kyrgystan[44]—the location of the factory for the Shkval. However, Taiwanese sources have also disclosed to the author that China was able to reverse-engineer some version of the Shkval , following its reported purchase from Kyrgystan in 1998. As such, it is possible that China may also be a possible technology source for Iran’s Hoot.

What a Hoot: Iran recently revealed a rocket torpedo called the Hoot (Fish) that closely resembles the Russian Shkval, but which may also contain Chinese origin technology. Source: Internet

Future Military Sales

Very soon China will be able to provide more competition for Russia, which has done better because its MiG-29 fighters, Su-24 fighter-bombers and KILO submarines sold to Iran do not just yet have better Chinese analogues. There have been no Chinese combat aircraft sales to Iran since the 14 Chengdu F-7B and 4 Guizhou JJ-7 trainers were sold in 1987. This may change by the end of the decade when China will be able to offer Chengdu FC-1 and J-10 fighters of comparable capability and lesser cost, with near equally capable precision-guided weapons. Iran recently purchased two 20-ton payload Shaanxi Y-8 transports, copies of the Antonov An-12.[45] A positive experience with the Y-8 may lead to Iranian interest in the new more modern Shaanxi Y-9 transport, which could prove very attractive replacements for Iranian Air Force C-130s that have featured in recent embarrassing crashes. China now offers its Type 039 SONG conventional submarine for export, and new Chinese Type 054 Jiankai stealthy frigates and new Type 22 stealthy fast attack craft may prove attrctive to Iran.

Future Sales: In the future China will be able to offer Iran competitive combat platforms like the Chengdu FC-1, which is already being co-produced in Pakistan, and the new Y-9 medium transport. Source: Chinese Internet

Current and Future Military Training

Iran has also been seeking improve actual military-to-military cooperation. From 2003 to 2005 groups of Iranian MiG-29 and Su-24 pilots have apparently been training in Russia.[46] In addition, Chinese-Iranian military cooperation also appears to be increasing. In late August 2005 a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) delegation visited Iran with the purpose "to pave the ground for further cooperation between the two countries and provide support to each other." Iranian reports noted the PLA delegation included a PLA Air Force Deputy Political Commissar and the Commander of the Nanjing Military Region.[47] The later is significant because the Nanjing Military Region is a frontline region in the event of a war with Taiwan, and has been significantly modernized for both offensive and defensive operations. This commander would be particularly useful in advising Iranians how to defend against possible attacks by U.S. and Israeli hi-tech weapons. The PLA delegation also witnessed an Iranian military exercises.[48] The Chinese side also "welcomed" an Iranian proposal to create a military-to-military "joint technical commission" that Iran hopes will advance cooperation in training and research.[49]

Part of China’s Larger Ambitions

Future Chinese-Iranian military cooperation to include exercises is not far-fetched, given China’s larger ambitions for regional leadership, the developing capabilities of the PLA, and Iran’s desire as well exercise greater regional leadership with China’s help. Just prior to Iran’s 2005 presidential election, according to Iranian reports of a TV interview, then presidential candidate Ari Larijani argued that "Iran and China could lead the region and they have the potential to do so."[50] In supporting Iran, China gains the benefits of being viewed positively in the larger Iran-centered Shi’ite world. Iran is likely to hold greater sway among resurgent Shi’ites in Iraq and Iran is due to play a key role in newly Hamas-led Palestinian Authority.

But key to China’s larger ambitions for regional leadership is its ability to emerge as the dominant power within its Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Formed in 2001 to include China, Russia, and the Central Asian Republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, it was enlarged in 2005 to include as official "observers" India, Iran, Mongolia and Pakistan. It now appears that all of the observers, to include Iran, will become formal members during the June 2006 SCO Summit in Shanghai, with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad attending.[51] China’s first-among-equals status is signaled by the location of the organization’s Secretariat—Shanghai—and the fact that its Secretary General is Chinese. There is tension for this primacy with Russia, which China must cultivate due it dependency on Russian military technology, resources, and its stronger relationship with India. But balancing the strengths Russia brings to the SCO leadership, China offers all its members far more attractive trade and investment benefits than Russia can offer, and brings along its special relationship with Pakistan and Iran derived from its many years of military sales, and nuclear and missile assistance to both.

The possibility that China may want to take a stronger leadership role in the SCO and the Iran crisis, potentially even offering itself as an intermediary between Iran and the West, has been suggested by recent Indian press reports.[52] And possibly reflecting this official desire, on January 23, Li Weijian, director of the Middle East section of the Shanghai International Affairs Institute, suggested that the SCO "get involved" in this issue.[53] Li’s reasoning is that with the exhaustion of the European Community-led negotiating process, the SCO, while it cannot solve the crisis, can "at least provide another possibility for maintaining the status quo, which is in the interest of all parties." Given the large and diverse membership of the SCO, the many venues for talks, and so forth, any negotiating process it led would likely prove even more effective at using up time and protracting the issue than even the seeming model, the six power talks over Korea.

China also looks to the SCO, with a greater Iranian contribution, as a means of generating positive incentives for India to moderate its rush into Washington’s strategic embrace. An Indian-U.S. entente may be only pairing that could potentially sway a future global power balance against China. Should India become a full member of the SCO, it can be expected that China will hold out greater Indian participation in the energy and trade networks that China is developing in Central Asia through its investments, especially in new road and rail linkages. With full SCO member status, it would be more likely that India would join Russia, China, India and eventually, Iran in the SCO rapidly growing program of military cooperation.

SCO Military Exercises: The August 2005 “Peace Mission 2005” large-scale military exercise with China and Russia sets a precedent for even larger SCO-sponsored exercises that could eventually include all SCO members. Source: Chinese Internet

As it midwifed Pakistan’s nuclear weapon status, and protects North Korea from U.S. and international pressures to surrender its nuclear weapons, it is logical to suspect that for China the optimal outcome in Iran would be success for its nuclear ambitions and subsequent eternal thanks and petroleum access accorded due to China’s constant friendship and support. But in 2006 and for most of the next decade, China will not have the raw military tools to enforce a "status quo," or deter a large U.S.-led coalition determined to terminate Iran’s nuclear capabilities. But by the first half of the next decade, the PLA Navy might have one aircraft carrier battle group with which it could engage in much higher profile naval diplomacy, and far more strategic airlift to project telegenic Airborne units.[54] For China the path to far greater strategic influence in South West Asia is more assured with Iran on its side.

Power Projection: An Internet-source picture of the former Soviet carrier Varyag in Dalian Harbor taken in May 2006 provides testament to China’s ambition to be able to project power into the Persian Gulf region. Source: Chinese Internet


To sum up, China is succeeding in marginalizing the United States as a player in the Middle East. Her grand strategy is clear: to disrupt American influence and leverage in the world by cutting Washington’s alliances, and supplying goods that Washington previously monopolized. Hence tight links to Iran—which by closing the Straits of Hormuz can bring the Western economy to a halt, even as China receives oil through pipelines from Central Asia (Russia is of course a major oil exporter). China has enough money and enough good weapons for sale to beat the United States at the old sanctions game. Israel is concerned, but, truth be told, lacks the military capability to deal with a country more than one hundred times its size, having hundreds of known nuclear sites and presumably many others unknown. As for the United States, an attack on Iran would lead immediately to massive Iranian support for the Shi’ias in Iraq, destroying Washington’s hopes for that country—and possibly trigger a regional war or worse.

No good military option exists. Whether diplomacy can work is doubtful. Can anyone imagine that Iran, facing a hostile, Sunni-dominated environment and arch-enemy Turkey, does not find nuclear weapons attractive.

The United States can probably learn to live with Iranian nuclear weapons, as it has learned to live with Korean nuclear weapons (when did you last hear complaints about those?) though such weapons are yet one more log on the great bonfire of potential war that may well erupt in our lifetimes. Or we may be able to bring Iran closer to us.

But what we must not do is imagine that China shares our goals. Above all, we must not sacrifice real interests, as we have been doing in the last few years, in pursuit of the will of the wisp of Chinese cooperation on this problem.

[1]See John W. Garver, "Development of China’s Overland Transportation Links with Central, South-west and South Asia," The China Quarterly, Volume 185, obtained via Internet.

[2]For example, on May 3 Democratic Progressive Party International Affairs Department Director Bi Hsiao Kim stated, "The US needs China's help in dealing with the issue of Iran's nuclear program, and that influenced its decision on Chen's transit request, which is disappointing." See, Shih Hsiu -chuan, "Lawmakers clash over US stops," Taipei Times, May 4, 2006, p. 3.

[3]"US Official Says Taiwan's Independence Means War for America," Agence France Presse, May 11, 2006.

[4]Ted Galen Carpenter, "The Bush Administration Snubs Taiwan," Fox, May 12, 2006.

[5]On May 3 the Iranian Student News Agency quoted Iranian Admiral Mohammad Ebrahim Dehghani saying, "We have announced that wherever (in Iran) America does make any mischief, the first place we target will be Israel,"see, Ali Akbar Dareini, "Iran threatens Israel if U.S. attacks," Associated Press, May 3, 2006.

[6]Nazila Fathi, "Senior Iran Cleric Tells Sudan That Nuclear Aid Is Available," The New York Times, April 26, 2006.

[7]Christopher Brown, "The Other Iranian Nuclear Crisis,", March 22, 2006.

[8]"China," Country Analysis Brief, August 2005,

[9]Elaine Kurtenbach, "Reports: China, Iran Near Huge Oil Deal," Associated Press, February 17, 2006; Peter S. Goodman, "China Rushes to Complete $100B Deal With Iran," The Washington Post, February 17, 2006.

[10]Taleh Ziyadov, "Iran and China Sign Agreement To Explore Oil In The Caspian Sea, European Monitor, Jamestown Foundation, February 1, 2006,

[11]For previous scholarship on China’s policies of deliberate proliferation see: Mohan Malik, "The Proliferation Axis: Beijing-Islamabad-Pyongyang," The Korean Journal of Defense Analysis, Spring, 2003; Justin Bernier, "China’s Strategic Proxies," Orbis, Fall, 2003.

[12]"China says backs EU plan on Iran stand-off," Reuters, May 16, 2006; George Jahn, "European Nations May Give Iran A Reactor," Associated Press, May 16, 2006.

[13]"Foreign Ministry Spokesman Kong Quan's Regular Press Conference on 26 January 2006,"

[14]"Iran says Russia and China will not back sanctions," Reuters, May 2, 2006. Also see, Colum Lynch, "Security Council Is Given Iran Resolution," TheWashington Post, May 4, 2006, p A18.

[15]Bryan Bender, "Iran is prepared to retaliate, experts warn," Boston Globe, February 12, 2006; "Radical Iranian group seeks British suicide volunteers," The Guardian, April 20, 2006, p. 1.

[16]Michael Adler, "Iran using Chinese-made feedstock for enriched uranium: diplomats," Agence France Presse, May 18, 2006.

[17]"Doubts over Iran’s nuclear capability," British Broadcasting Corperation, May 18, 2006,

[18]Iran after obtaining Maraging steel to build nuclear bomb casing," Reuters, July 28, 2005; Iran took Chinese beryllium for nuclear weapons," Pravda, September 1, 2005.

[19]Douglas Jehl, "CIA Says Pakistanis Gave Iran Nuclear Aid," The New York Times, November 24, 2004, p. A10.

[20]Ken Timmerman, "The Nuclear Dots," FrontPage Magazine, February 2, 2006,

[21]Ibid; Joby Warrick and Peter Slevin, "Libyan Arms Designs Traced Back to China, Pakistanis Resold Chinese-Provided Plans" The Washington Post, February 15, 2004, p. A01

[22]Bangladesh, Pakistan, team up with China on Space Cooperation, SPX, October 31, 2005.

[23]"Iran to build satellite in cooperation with China,", November 17, 2005,

[24]Prasun K. Sengupta, "Dr. Khan’s Second Wal-Mart," Force, April 2006,


[26]Tom Warner, "Iran and China Linked to Ukraine Cruise Missles," Financial Times, February 2, 2005,

[27]Sengupta, op-cit.

[28]Iran’s ability to integrate the Noor/C-802 on to the Su-24, presumably with Chinese help, bodes well for its ability to integrate its new LACM onto the Su-24 or other aircraft.

[29]"US Urges Ban On Military Sales To Iran," Agence France Presse, April 24, 2006.

[30]At least 21 MiG-29s and 16-18 Su-24s defected from Iraq to Iran in 1990-91 to escape Coalition bombing, the remainder were then sold by Russia.

[31]While no precise public information exists on the exact status of Iran’s F-14 fleet, for an authoritative estimate see, Tom Cooper and Liam F. Devlin, "Iran, A Formidable Opponent?," Air Combat, May 2006, pp. 28-35. Other estimates vary widely, for example, notes that in 2000 only 20 of the 79 F-14s delivered before 1979 remain flying, -- U.S. Navy F-14s recently completed their last operational tour before full retirement this September.

[32]Andrew Koch, "U.S. Customs Arrests Suspected Iranian Agents," Jane’s Defence Weekly, December 20, 2000.

[33]Ken Timmerman, "China Shops," The American Spectator, Mary 1995.

[34]Report on the Select Committee On U.S. National Security and Military/Commercial Concerns With The People’s Republic of China, Submitted by Mr. Cox of California, Chairman, Part 1, Washington, USGPO, 1999, p. 42.


[36]Reuben F. Johnson, "Ingenuity keeps Iranian AF Aloft," Aviation International Online, December 2003,

[37]Engineers from Mikoyan and Sukhoi are also reported to have been engaged in this program, see, Robert Hewson, "Iran Airshow 2002, Iran’s New Light Combat Aircraft Waits In The Wings," Jane’s Defence Weekly, November 20, 2002.

[38]Robert Hewson, "China aids Iran’s tactical missile program," Jane’s Defence Weekly, November 17, 2004.

[39]Cooper and Devlin, op cit; Iranian TV showed the Noor being launched from a Mi-17 helicopter during the recent Holy Prophet exercises.

[40]"Iran Seeking Chinese Military Technologies," Kanwa News, April 30, 2003.

[41]Iran produces sophisticated rocket," United Press International, February 6, 2006.

[42]Douglas Barrie, "Firing Away," Aviation Week and Space Technology, April 10, 2006, p. 33.

[43]"Military Commander Says New Iranian Underwater Missile Can Avoid Sonar," Tehran Islamic Republic of Iran News Network Television, April 2, 2006.

[44]"Iran May Have Obtained Soviet Super-Torpedo Through Kyrgyzstan ," Moscow NTV Mir, April 2, 2006.

[45]"Iran puchases two Y-8 aircraft from China," MEHR New Agency, April 28, 2006.

[46]Cooper and Devlin, p. 31.

[47]"Visiting Chinese Military Delegation Meets Iran’s Army Commander," Fars News Agency, August 17, 2005;

[48]"Iranian, Chinese Military Officials Hold More Talks," Mehr News Agency, August 20, 2005.

[49]"Iranian, Chinese Armed Forces To Form Joint Technical Commission," Mehr News Agency, August 20, 2005.

[50]Iranian TV Interviews Candidate Larijani 6 Jun on Election Program," Vision Of The Islamic Republic of Iran Network 1, June 6, 2005.

[51]Jahn, op-cit.

[52]"China want to broker for Iran," News Insight, January 21, 2006,

[53]Lin Chuan, "Iran threatens to resume enriched uranium refining; expert proposes SCO intervention," Zhongguo Tongxun She, January 23, 2006, BBC Monitoring.

[54]See, Richard D. Fisher, Jr., "Global Ambitions," Armed Forces Journal, May 2006,


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