This article first appeared on TomDispatch.com.
While the tone of the Obama administration is different from that of its predecessor, and some of its foreign policies diverge from those of George W. Bush, at their core both administrations subscribe to the same doctrine: whatever the White House perceives as a threat–whether it be Iran, North Korea, or the proliferation of long-range missiles–must be viewed as such by Moscow and Beijing.
In addition, by the evidence available, Barack Obama has not drawn the right conclusion from his predecessor’s failed Iran policy. A paradigm of sticks-and-carrots simply is not going to work in the case of the Islamic Republic. Here, a lesson is readily available, if only the Obama White House were willing to consider Iran’s recent history. It is unrealistic to expect that a regime that fought Saddam Hussein’s Iraq (then backed by the United States) to a standstill in a bloody eight-year war in the 1980s, unaided by any foreign power, and has for thirty years withstood the consequences of US-imposed economic sanctions will be alarmed by Washington’s fresh threats of “crippling sanctions.”
Most important, the Obama administration is ignoring the altered international order that has emerged in the wake of the global financial crisis triggered by Wall Street’s excesses. While its stimulus package, funded by taxpayers and foreign borrowing, has arrested the decline in the nation’s gross domestic product, Washington has done little to pull the world economy out of the doldrums. That task–performed by the United States in recent recessions–has fallen willy-nilly to China. History repeatedly shows that such economic clout sooner or later translates into diplomatic power.
Backed by more than $2 trillion in foreign exchange reserves, the state-owned Chinese oil corporations have been locking up hydrocarbon resources as far away as Brazil. Not surprisingly, Iran, with the second-largest oil as well as gas reserves in the world, looms large in the strategic plans of Beijing. The Chinese want to import Iran’s petroleum and natural gas through pipelines across Central Asia, thus circumventing sea routes vulnerable to US naval interdiction. As this is an integral part of China’s energy security policy, little wonder that Chinese oil companies have committed an estimated $120 billion–so far–to Iran’s energy industry.
During a recent meeting with Iran’s first vice president, Muhammad Reza Rahimi, in Beijing, Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao stressed the importance of cooperation between the two countries when it comes to hydrocarbons and trade (at $29 billion a year, and rising), as well as “greater coordination in international affairs.” Little wonder, then, that China has already moved to neutralize any sanctions that the United States–backed by Britain, France and Germany–might impose on Iran without United Nations authorization.