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.