China: the Middle East’s new power broker

Could China be the key to peace between Israel and Iran?

22 June 2013

9:00 AM

22 June 2013

9:00 AM

It’s exactly ten years since Iranian dissidents first blew the cover of a secret uranium-enrichment facility under a mountain at Natanz, in a bleak stretch of desert near Isfahan. Ever since, relations between Israel and Iran have headed inexorably towards war. Israeli leaders have insisted that they are ready to launch a military strike — unilaterally if necessary — against Iran if the uranium enrichment continues. Iranian leaders, liberals and hardliners alike, have been equally adamant that the centrifuges will continue to spin. For Israeli hawks like prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the question has been not whether to strike Iran, but when.

But in the past few weeks, the diplomatic geometry has shifted — and for the first time in a decade there are signs that the spiral towards conflict could be broken. Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, has announced that he wishes to re-establish diplomatic relations with the United States. But perhaps equally importantly, China has quietly emerged as the new behind-the-scenes dealmaker in the Middle East.

As the US comes closer to energy self-sufficiency and reduces its military presence in the Middle East, China is beginning to realise that its own energy security — and economic security — depends on maintaining peace in the region. After years of trying to stay out of Arab-Israeli politics, in May -Beijing invited Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas for talks on the Palestinian peace process. Another ultra-discreet meeting took place earlier this month at Green Templeton College in Oxford. Chinese and Israeli generals met to talk about establishing a back-channel dialogue directly between Israel, the US and Iran — with China as the honest broker.

China’s interest in averting war is clear: it imports 12 per cent of its oil from Iran, and over half from the Persian Gulf. ‘To sustain its prosperity China must foster stability,’ Lord Mandelson told the delegates at the Oxford meeting. ‘China can less and less afford to sit on sidelines as conflicts worsen. China has too much at stake to continue to sit out every conflict and leave it to everyone else to deal with.’ Hitherto China, like Russia, has insisted on the principle of non-intervention in internal conflicts. It has opposed western military interventions from Yugoslavia to Iraq to Syria. ‘But the nature of the issues now facing China means it no longer has the luxury of standing by,’ said Mandelson. ‘Let us not say intervene, let us say engage. This is not interference — this is the exercise of responsibility.’

The bottom line is that the Chinese are in a unique position to break the deadlock on talks with Iran. Sanctions have undoubtedly hurt Tehran, but failed to weaken its resolve to enrich uranium. The problem is, in part, that the US and Britain are fatefully tainted in Iranian eyes by a history of meddling in Persian politics — capitulation to the Great and Little Satans would be electoral suicide.


China, on the other hand, could play several vital roles. First, its status as Iran’s biggest foreign investor and trading partner puts it in a position to offer significant rewards for good behaviour — and restoring Iran’s sanctions-devastated economy is one of President Rouhani’s top priorities. Secondly, China can offer security guarantees to reassure Iran that it doesn’t necessarily need a nuclear bomb. Perhaps, Professor Sir John Hanson, an old Iran hand and former warden of Green College, suggested to the meeting, China could propose ‘a regional security organisation that does not include western powers’ — maybe within the framework of the China-led Shanghai Co-operation Organisation, which currently includes Russia and Central Asia with Iran as an official observer. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, China’s role as a middleman could let Iran back down without losing face — a concept central to both Chinese and Iranian cultures — or being seen to surrender to western powers. In the words of one member of the Chinese delegation, ‘If you surround an enemy from all sides, he has no choice but to fight — he has nowhere to escape to.’ Crucially, the Green Templeton meeting ended with an agreement to reconvene at a more private location with both Iranian and US representatives present.

So far none of this is official. In diplomatic jargon, it’s known as ‘track three’ — talks about talks via non-diplomatic channels, in this case organised by Professor Jean-Christophe Iseux von Pfetten of the Royal Institute of East-West Strategic Studies or REISS (affiliated to Oxford University and under the patronage of various European royals). General Huang Baifu, head of the Chinese delegation, is a former chief of China’s military intelligence. But he was in Oxford in his civilian role as a fellow of the China Institute of Strategic Studies. Similarly General Doron Avital, former commander of Israel’s Special Forces and ex-chairman of the Knesset’s Security and Foreign Affairs Committee, attended as a private individual. A future meeting with the Iranians would probably involve senior members of the Expediency Council’s Strategic Research Centre — officially a think-tank, but actually a top advisory body to Iran’s Supreme Leader.

‘The Oslo accords began with unofficial meetings to think creatively about possible solutions — meetings like these are the invisible hands of politics,’ said Avital, a rising star of Israel’s left-wing Kadima party who has been mooted as Netanyahu’s future deputy prime minister. ‘Daring means to take in advance the initiative of calculated risk.’

The key point is to avert an Iranian nuclear bomb test. Netanyahu has insisted that such a test would amount to a declaration of war — and Israeli intelligence estimates that it could happen as soon as November (the Chinese, for their part, reckon a test is at least a year away). The problem is that even the reformist Rouhani stressed at his first press conference last week that he would oppose halting the uranium enrichment programme. But at the same time he has made positive noises, promising his government would work towards ‘constructive interaction with the world’.

The Israelis and Americans have heard all this before. ‘Iran’s strategy is to keep talking and one day we will wake up to a new reality that Iran is now nuclear,’ says Avital. Last month, the UN’s nuclear watchdog said Iran had installed hundreds of new centrifuges at its Natanz plant. But as Iran’s nuclear stockpiles grow it becomes all the more important to convince Tehran that the one weapon it believes will guarantee its security — a nuke — is exactly the thing that would trigger a catastrophic conflict. ‘The core of the problem is that Iran is afraid of America,’ says one senior Chinese official.

China, for its part, remains reluctant to wade into the quagmire of Middle Eastern politics — and certainly has no intention of assuming a US-style hands-on role. Oil from the Persian Gulf matters, but Beijing’s relationship with Washington is much more important. That’s a good thing: unlike Russia, which has unabashedly spoken for Iran in resisting UN sanctions, China will not be taking Iran’s side, just as it has resisted taking sides in the Syrian conflict and has (unsuccessfully) urged the other permanent members of the UN security council to do the same.

Even so, China is becoming more conscious of how its power is perceived around the world — and, as its new-found diplomatic involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict shows, has been forced to engage much more actively in the politics of the wider world. The firmest evidence of this new mood came earlier this month when Chinese President Xi Jinping met with Barack Obama for a two-day summit in Sunnylands, in California. Not much remarked upon in the din of Turkish riots and revelations of the National Security Agency’s snooping, the Sunnylands summit marked a significant new direction in the relationship between the world’s last super-power and its fastest-rising power.

‘The leaders came with ideas about opportunities. It created a completely different discussion and dynamic,’ the US national security adviser Thomas Donilon told Time’s Fareed Zakaria. The summit was unprecedentedly informal, constructive and friendly — despite the growing threat of conflict between China and Japan and evidence of Chinese cyber-warfare.

So far both the Sunnylands summit and, on a more tentative level, the RIESS meetings are all about rhetoric and atmospherics. ‘The true test of this summit will be in two or three or five years,’ Donilon acknowledged, ‘when this background goodwill has to get translated into specific actions on both sides.’ But after years of deadlock on Iran, the stars are re-aligning: a leader in Tehran who is willing to talk to the Americans; top Israeli politicians who are ready to talk to the Iranians; China, which is taking a newfound role as an intermediary between the two. Those are surely the kind of atmospherics from which peace can be constructed.

Owen Matthews is a contributing editor at Newsweek/The Daily Beast.

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Show comments
  • NotYouNotSure

    One can say many bad things about Chinas domestic behaviour, but compared to the blundering foreign policy of both the USA and UK, their international relations are exemplary. Both the US and UK have taken the side of Israel, so it is beyond stupid to believe that they should play arbiters in the Israel-Iran conflict, China on the other hand has no internal power brokers that strongly favour Israel or Iran. China can play an adult role in the middle east as opposed to children like Cameron that always seem to make it worse.

  • Treebrain

    Excellent news about the involvement of China.

    China will definitely support the continuation of the Iranian nuclear programme if only so that Iran has more oil to export to China.

    Fracking means that the US will son be energy self-sufficient, and Obama has long wanted to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan and the Middle East.

    Netanyahu is a busted flush, he no longer has any traction with the Obama administration, no support from former European allies, the idea of a unilateral Israeli attack on Iran is risible, Netanyahu has lost former allies in Egypt and Turkey and is spent as a domestic political force.

    • ganef_returns

      ” is spent as a domestic political force”

      How are you an expert to make this statement? You don’t even live here.

      • Treebrain

        Did I ever claim to be an ‘expert’?

        I am just like you, a participant in a discussion.

        As for ‘You don’t even live here’, that is risible because you have no idea who I am or where I live, do you?

        • ganef_returns

          Yes you do claim to be an expert on matters beyond your personal knowledge such as the Jewish population of Iran and their disposition. In my postings I do not rely on newspapers and television before making sweeping statements which you then term discussion.

          I am an Israeli and a Jew and I do not make comments unless they directly affect me in either role. I never comment on British or American politics because I am not qualified to do so. Unlike you.

          I even hold a British passport as well, but left England some years ago because I did not like what I saw happening. And its got worse. Sorry, that should be it seems to have got worse in the intervening years. But when I visited Bicester mall a short time ago there were many burkhas to be seen.

          A quick look at your comments. You as “Did I ever claim to be an ‘expert’?”. No, but you clearly try to be one.

          “The US is technically bankrupt”

          “The US will just have to accept that Beijing was responsible for the decision to allow Snowden to leave and deal with it!”

          “Israel has no viable defence against either category of missiles”

          “Palestinians are now acquiring the capacity to inflict ever greater damage upon Israel”

          “Jews are not necessarily natives or do you not know what the Ashkenazi are”

          “Hezbollah will ensure the survival of the Assad regime, their reward will include S-300 SAMs”

          “Netanyahu is spent as a domestic political force.”

          “Whilst on the topic of ritual religious genital mutilation do not forget the circumcision rituals the Islam and Judaism inflict on male children.”

          The list of your expertise (football and rugby as well), knows no limits and I included the last quote to demonstrate that you are definitely not a Jew or an Israeli.

          • Treebrain

            “….to demonstrate that you are definitely not a Jew or an Israeli.”

            Your frustration and impotence with regard to knowledge of my identity oozes from every comment that you make!

            You are clearly beside yourself with rage because I know so much about Judaism and Israel so you are and just do not follow a Likud and Zionist mindset.

            What is interesting is the complete absence of any attempt to refute the knowledge, analysis and sources cited in any of my comments!

            I stand by all the comments that you so diligently and assiduously gleaned from the internet, and you cannot deny a single one, can you!

            Feel free to contest any of my assertions, but the simple truth is that I deal with reality while you appear to inhabit a world of fantasy.

            Here is a single example to help you on your way;

            Iran will become a nuclear power in the next two years. All talk of an Israeli ‘military option’ is fantasy as Israel is impotent and lacks the knowledge, experience and logistical facilities to mount an effective attack upon Iran. The US will do nothing tangible to prevent Iran becoming a nuclear power.

            Suck it up and deal with it because that is the real world!

          • ganef_returns

            “knowledge of my identity”
            Don’t flatter yourself, I don’t care.

            ” I know so much about Judaism and Israel”
            I appreciate a man(?) with a sense of humour.

            “analysis and sources cited”
            So you know how to use Google. Bet you don’t know how many oak trees there are in the whole of Israel. (Clue: on one hand).

            ” your Likud and Zionist mindset”
            My politics for over sixty years are definitely to the left.

            But, thank you for response, it demonstrates exactly what you are. And, by the way, the current temperature outside is 29C with a high forecast of 31C. But you know that.

          • Treebrain

            You desperation and frustration are clear, you clutch at straws as you are unable to refute my comments, fault my logic or question my sources.

            Dream on, but fantasy is no substitute for policy.

            Ad hominem attacks are no substitute for debate and you only embarrass yourself for stooping so low!

          • ganef_returns

            “you are unable to refute my comments, fault my logic or question my sources”

            Dream on. Better still, look at all the negatives your postings attract, against all the positives mine receive. So its not just my opinions of you. As I will be in England for the next few days with no access to a computer, goodbye.

          • Treebrain

            Ha, ha, ha because you have a little ‘concert party’ who give you likes, or even multiple on-line identities to like yourself, you assertion is worthless.

            My comments may very well be unpopular because I am not pandering to the masses but simply stating how I see things.

            Look me up on DISQUS and The Daily Telegraph websites and see how many ‘recs’ that I have?

            Funny how you seem to get four likes every time, is it not?

            Interesting that in a first world country like England that you have no access to a computer but mange it in your current location?

          • Plum_is_an_idiot

            I wonder if Professor Plum and Treebrain are one and the same? They both seem to be impervious to criticism and negatives. They both demand answers to their questions but don’t give any.

            “question my sources”
            You don’t give any but Plum trawled the Internet for his, so perhaps not.

  • Augustus

    “Israel is the largest U.S. aircraft carrier which does not require even one U.S. soldier, cannot be sunk, deployed in a most critical area for U.S. interests. If there would not be an Israel, the U.S. would have to deploy a few real additional aircraft carriers to the Mediterranean, which would cost the U.S. taxpayer about $15 billion annually.”
    -Gen. Alexander Haig

    Today, Israel constitutes the only stable, predictable, capable, democratic and unconditional U.S. ally, serving as a critical line of defense for Jordan and other U.S allies. Israel is a unique source of intelligence and and counter-terrorism tactics. Iran, on the other hand, is one of the most dangerous regimes in the world. The international community cannot allow Iran to acquire the most dangerous weapons in the world. Whoever thought that the victory of Rouhani was a way for the ayatollahs to save face and fold up their tent was wrong. The Iranians did not plow through the ups and downs of developing the bomb, the loss of scientists, the damaging blows and the sanctions that have been imposed on their people just to halt their nuclear programme and boost their new president with the Western-style upbringing. Whether in negotiations with the West, or China, Iran will just keep dragging its feet until it has completed its ‘grand project’. Iran may very well be eager to enjoy the manipulative support of the Chinese, and to unite all anti-American elements under the umbrella of its Shiite-expansionist agenda. But the West should demand that Iran immediately dismantles its uranium enrichment programme before any talks on lifting sanctions can commence. Unfortunately for Israel and the West, American weakness after the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, as well as its past hesitation in confronting the Iranian atomic bomb, seems to confirm Iranian assessments that in America they are dealing with nothing more than a paper tiger.

    • Treebrain

      Get over yourself, Obama has made very clear that the US national interest has diverged from that of Israel and is acting accordingly.

      During his second term Iran will become a nuclear power and the US will do nothing to hinder Iran.

      Israel will just have to get used to the fact that Iran is a nuclear power.

      • Augustus

        “Obama has made very clear that the US national interest has diverged from that of Israel and is acting accordingly.”

        But wheels turn. Obama was elected because he wasn’t Bush. Bush is popular now because he’s not Obama. Anyway, Israel will shortly have a fully developed a multilayered missile defense network, for both short-range threats and long-range threats.

        • Treebrain

          “Anyway, Israel will shortly have a fully developed a multilayered missile defense network, for both short-range threats and long-range threats.”

          Please, please do not think that ‘Iron dome is any protection whatsoever?

          Israel has no viable defence against either category of missiles, whilst the ir opponents are consistently enhancing and extending their capability. Did you not know that recently missiles were fired that reached Tel Aviv, did you not see the video footage of showing city residents fleeing, terror-stricken, to seek refuge in shelters?

          What is taking place is the process known as equivalency, whereby Palestinians are now acquiring the capacity to inflict ever greater damage upon Israel to match the ability of Israel to do the same as Palestine.

          When they finally realise that a war of attrition is pointless, they might start to engage diplomatically.

          • ganef_returns

            “Please, please do not think that ‘Iron dome is any protection whatsoever?”
            Six more rockets out of Gaza over the weekend with no response from Israel. Four fell on wasteland and two were shot down by Iron Dome.

          • Treebrain

            As stated, Iron Dome simply does not work.

            Iron Dome is a PR stunt, not a viable anti-missile system.

  • Paul Cameron

    Iran is developing a nuke not for its own security but to blow up Israel. They hate Jews and want to kill them all. Don’t believe me, then read the qu’ran.

    • Treebrain

      “They hate Jews and want to kill them all.”


      Iran has a large Jewish community who are actively protected by the state and enjoy complete freedom!

      How inconvenient the facts must be for you!

      • ganef_returns

        ” a large Jewish community ”

        How large?

        “enjoy complete freedom”

        Define complete freedom.

        How are you qualified to make these statements?

        • Treebrain

          Look these things up for yourself!

          How big is the community, well how big is the Jewish community in the UK?

          In the UK there are less than 250,000 Jews, so they are less than one half of one percent of the population of sixty million, statistically negligible.

          Given the rate of decline of their numbers, they could well disappear in the next few generations, hence the hysteria from Chief Rabbi Sachs about “marrying out”!

          In answer to your final question, I am as well-qualified as anyone to make these statements on such a public forum such as this website. As you well know, I am perfectly capable in making logical, consistent and coherent points based upon the facts which I cite as required.

          You may well not like what I say, but you cannot refute it or deny it!

    • Pfff

      Is it mentioned in the Qu’ran that Iran hates Jews and wants to kill them all..? Is this a huge logical leap or what?? I am not Muslim, but these arguments are really childish and in fact you’re not proving anything as far as the Muslims are concerned or Iran specifically, you’re just proving something about yourself, that you’re immature and ignorant. And by the way, I have the impression that according to the Qu’ran a Muslim has to respect the “people of the Book” (i.e. the Jews and the Christians), but I wouldn’t argue about it, since I am no Islam-expert, and neither are you, so keep your rather racist thoughts to yourself.

  • BoiledCabbage

    Consider the dog that never barks in the night…..they are often the unseen and unmentioned player in ME politics……Saudi Arabia.

  • Gui Xuelin

    By the way who is this Prof. Iseux von Pfetten? He did managed to gather top generals from Israel and China to come to Oxford for such amasing talks. If his initiative is successful in averting war between Israel and Iran he must be awarded the nobel peace prize. That would be better that these useless Chinese dissident!

  • Gui Xuelin

    After checking in the Chinese net I found that Prof. Iseux is the very famous YISI JIAOSHU who has worked in China for the past 15 years and has been the only Caucasian member of the Chinese upper house of parliament (CPPCC). He is also the only foreigner to be given the Lei Feng Award (equivalent of the medal of Merit).
    Apparently he was also the youngest Ambassador at the UN stationed in Geneva and helped to negotiate the CTBTO. In 1996 we can find his speech at the UN Conference on Desarmament pushing for Total Nuclear Desarmament. No wonder that he can now successfully trigger such meetings in Oxford. Myself and all the Chinese people are supporting YISI in this new initiative. He has proved to be a great force for China and will certainly prove to be a positive force for the Middle-East peace process. Involving China in such initiative is a great idea. Bravo YISI!

  • iakovos