Iran's Bomb and the Chinese Connection

Aiding the Mullahs to acquire nuclear weapons.

China’s ongoing and increasing role in aiding Iranian efforts to acquire nuclear weapons was cited in a disturbing new UN report. While the UN report centered on Iranian and North Korean efforts to regularly ship each other “prohibited ballistic missile related items,” it also designated China as the “transit hub” for these illegal shipments.

Unfortunately, news of China’s duplicity comes at a time when Iran’s Bushehr nuclear power plant is said to be only weeks away from operating at full capacity. While Iran has claimed the Bushehr power plant to be solely dedicated to its civil nuclear energy program, the United States and its allies have long suspected this plant to be a venue to develop nuclear weapons.

While the Chinese were reportedly displeased by the UN report, that view may have been due more to its inability to block the report’s release than by any finding that it had engaged in illicit activity. In either case, the news that China is providing assistance to Iran’s quest to develop a nuclear weapons program comes as little surprise.

As far back as 2010, a Pentagon review had specifically determined the Chinese to be assisting the Iranians in the development and expansion of its nuclear missile program.

Most recently, in March 2011, Malaysian authorities had seized the Malaysian-registered merchant freighter Bunga Raya I for containing parts and equipment -- made in China and bound for Iran -- believed meant for making nuclear warheads.

In fact, American intelligence has long believed that Chinese companies have been involved in providing restricted technology and materials to Iran’s military programs. To that end, in September 2010, the US State Department had presented to Beijing what it considered to be a “significant list” of Chinese companies that were violating UN sanctions against Iran.

Most of the firms in question had been discovered to be selling Iran “high-quality carbon fiber” used to build better uranium enriching centrifuges. Despite China’s denial, Robert Einhorn, the State Department’s special adviser for nonproliferation and arms control, said in April 2011 that Chinese companies were still continuing to work to help Iran obtain “sensitive technology used for developing a nuclear weapons capability.”

However, if the United States still believes China is assisting Iran’s nuclear ambitions, it wasn’t indicated in last week’s two-day US - China Strategic and Economic Summit. In a report on the meeting’s outcome, the State Department devoted one line to the issue, which read “Both countries reiterated their understanding on the Iranian nuclear issue.”

This understanding between the two nations seems to be that the US and its allies disrupt Iran’s nuclear weapons program through economic sanctions, while China actively works to help Iran achieve its nuclear goal by increasing economic ties to the Islamist Republic.

For example, after the Security Council passed its fourth round of enhanced sanctions on Iran in June 2010, the United States, the European Union, and other allies passed laws that further restricted investment in Iran’s energy sector. After Russia recently canceled its sale to Iran of an advanced antiaircraft missile, China has remained the last major economy with significant investments in Iran’s energy industry.

Unfortunately, Iran’s partnership with China is just part of a broader strategy undertaken by the Islamist state to keep its contested nuclear weapons program running through a policy of strengthening economic ties with Asian nations and territories, most notably China, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Over the past several years, Iran has increased its non-oil exports to Asia by almost 20 percent, a figure which now represents 83 percent of its total sales. By contrast, Iran’s exports to Europe have fallen by almost 25 percent, which now represents 13 percent of its overall export total.

Over the same period, Iranian imports from Asia have reached 61 percent of its total sales. Moreover, the Iranians have dramatically increased its exports to Asian countries and territories in an effort to reduce the foreign reserves it holds in Western banks.

Unfortunately, Iran doesn’t necessarily require a new Asian economic policy to help it skirt the impact of UN-imposed economic sanctions. Even though a recent UN report acknowledged that economic sanctions “have made it harder, costlier and riskier for Iran to acquire items needed for its banned nuclear and missile activities,” it also concluded that Iran continues to circumvent those economic sanctions by using front companies and other concealment methods.

To that end, both the United Nations and the European Union have identified nearly 200 such front companies utilized by the Iranians to procure material for its nuclear weapons program. The result of these efforts was highlighted in a Defense Intelligence Agency assessment released in March 2011 which concluded international economic sanctions were not stopping Iran’s quest to acquire nuclear weapons

So, with its progress toward completion of a nuclear weapons program going unhindered, it came as somewhat of surprise when Iran recently urged the P5+1 nations (Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States) to resume nuclear talks. Even though Iran had pulled out of nuclear talks over its refusal to discuss international demands that it freeze its uranium enrichment program, the Iranians have now had an apparent change of heart.

In a letter to the European Union, Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili said the next round of dialogue should be based on “respect for Iran’s rights and avoidance of pressure.” For its part, both the EU and White House promptly rejected the overture saying it would only restart the nuclear talks if the Iranians were interested in serious negotiations.

Apparently, and unsurprisingly, the Chinese believed Iran’s offer to be quite serious. As China’s ambassador to the UN Li Baodong said, “We have always believed in and supported the strategy of interaction and negotiation with Iran. We are willing for talks with Iran and I think we can come to a suitable solution.”

Unfortunately, as events have clearly demonstrated, both Iran and China have already determined what such an appropriate result should look like.

Frank Crimi is a writer living in San Diego, California. You can read more of Frank's work at his blog,