China, Israel And Attacking Iran

The Atlantic Monthly has a must read cover story on the possibility that Israel may attack Iran within the next year-The Point of No Return. The author-Jeffrey Goldberg–had remarkable access to both US and Israeli policy elite. If you take the time to read Goldberg’s long article I urge you to read both Glenn Greenwald’s critique of Goldberg and this story and Jim Fallows’ very thoughtful defense.

But this is a blog about China, so I will get to the point. What I found remarkable about Goldberg’s opus is that there is not a single mention of China, its interests in the Middle East, its relationship with Israel, its commercial and diplomatic relationships with Iran, or its role in keeping sanctions against Iran relatively weak.

An attack on Iran would be devastating to China’s economy and thus its political stability. As Goldberg writes, such a strike, among many bad outcomes, would likely cause “the price of oil to spike to cataclysmic highs, launching the world economy into a period of turbulence not experienced since the autumn of 2008, or possibly since the oil shock of 1973.”

Israel has tried in the last few months to impress upon the Chinese the seriousness of their intentions to never allow an Iranian nuclear bomb, and the possible consequences for China in the event of an attack. To lobby China for support for tougher UN sanctions, Israel in April sent Major-General Amir Eshel, chief of the IDF’s Planning Directorate, to “warn China of the international consequences of military action, particularly the potential disruption to oil supplies on which much of China’s manufacturing and international trade depend.”

Will Goldberg’s article make a positive contribution to efforts to convince the Chinese government that the Israelis feel threatened enough to attack, China and the world’s economies be damned, and so they need to agree to serious sanctions against Iran? Or do the Chinese have no real understanding of Israeli psychology and the historical forces that make many Israelis think an attack on Iran is justified, without regard for global consequences?

Goldberg’s discussion of how an attack might unfold is also a stark reminder that in spite of China’s increasing economic and diplomatic clout, the US remains the world’s only superpower. China has minimal force projection capabilities, no meaningful military presence in the Middle East, and no likely military role in the event of war after an Israeli attack, other than making lucrative arms sales (probably to many participants).

If the US-led diplomatic efforts to force Iran to renounce nuclear weapons development fail and Israel attacks, China risks being seen again as a less than responsible stakeholder in the international system, whether or not you believe Israel is justified in such an attack. China’s support of North Korea in the wake of the Cheonan attack has demonstrated once again to many neighboring Asian countries that China can not be relied upon. As with North Korea, most people believe China could play a very positive role in pushing Iran towards a “good” outcome, but that it refuses to do so, for commercial reasons as well as very narrow and likely miscalculated “strategic” gains at America’s expense.

In March 2010 the Jamestown Foundation published an interesting article on the China-Iran relationship, in the context of a possible Israeli attack–Hobson’s Choice: China’s Second Worst Option on Iran. The author, Yitzhak Shichor, argues that China will ultimately be willing to side with the international community in favor of tougher Iran sanctions. He wrote this piece before the last round of disappointing sanctions, and his conclusion, that “compelled to make a choice between sanctions and war, Beijing may ultimately prefer the former to the latter”, was premature. But it is not too late, and we should all hope that China understands the determination of the Israelis, and their willingness to possibly plunge the world into war and another Depression.

Please tell me what you think in the comments.

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