How China Is Behind the Nuclear Program of Iran—and Every Other Rogue State
Beijing proved masterful at enabling Pyongyang to expand its program, and did the same for Pakistan. Now it’s Tehran’s turn.
In November, immediately after the announcement that Iran had reached a deal with Western negotiators concerning its nuclear program, China’s former ambassador to Tehran, Hua Liming, made the case that Beijing—not the American Secretary of State John Kerry or the European Union envoy Catherine Ashton—ultimately deserved credit for brokering the agreement. “When the two parties came across irresolvable problems, they would come to China, which would ‘lubricate’ the negotiation and put things back on track,” Hua, apparently speaking at the direction of the Communist Party, told Chinese state media.
There has been considerable disagreement about whether the interim arrangement, which partially freezes Iran’s nuclear program, is a good deal for the international community. Beijing’s enthusiasm is sufficient evidence that it is not: China is Iran’s best big-power friend, and if Hua is to be believed, then Beijing thinks it has just scored a triumph for its friends in Tehran.
This is the latest instance of the Chinese, mostly in concert with the Russians but sometimes alone, providing diplomatic support where it counts. Without China running interference with the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency and the U.N. Security Council, the Russians would undoubtedly be less willing to support Tehran. But with Beijing in the background and sometimes out front, the Iranians can hold off others as their nuclear efforts proceed at what appears to be a rapid pace.
Chinese leaders say their nation “has always adopted a serious and responsible attitude toward preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons”—but that is far from the truth. Beijing has proven masterful at procuring time for nuclearizing rogues, having protected North Korea during negotiations about its atomic program, known as the Six-Party Talks, which China has sponsored since August 2003. During those fruitless negotiations, the Kim regime first stalled, then lied, and finally crowed—when it detonated its first atomic device, in October 2006. Since then, there have been two subsequent tests, in May 2009 and, more recently, this past February.
During all three detonations, Iranian representatives, including the mysterious Mohsen Fakhrizadeh—thought to be Iran’s chief nuclear scientist—were present. Tehran has been funding the North Korean nuclear program for perhaps as long as a decade, which means the Islamic Republic is already a nuclear state, at least as a practical matter. The close cooperation across national boundaries means nuclear weapons programs need not be just national in scope. We tend to think of China, Pakistan, North Korea, and Iran as having four parallel efforts, but in truth it’s better thought of as one program conducted in various locations.
It is China that ultimately makes Iran dangerous. Without the People’s Republic, the Islamic one would not be able to withstand pressure from the international community. China is the biggest purchaser of Iranian oil, surreptitiously evading American sanctions by paying in gold and in renminbi, the Chinese currency—or simply by taking smuggled cargoes. Moreover, Beijing has apparently helped Tehran sell crude to Pyongyang, as evident from the deal reached last year between the two rogue states. China kept a role for itself with a requirement that oil had to be shipped to Chinese state enterprises, an indication that the People’s Republic was paying for at least a part of North Korea’s purchases. Whenever two of China’s closest client states begin talking, Beijing must be helping both.
China’s historic support for Iran is one reason we should be suspicious of November’s interim freeze. The terms of the deal struck between the Iranians and negotiators representing the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany—commonly referred to as the P5+1—foreclose the likelihood of an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities while a final agreement is worked out, a process that could extend well beyond the six-month term currently being advertised.
Meanwhile, there have been reports in the past few weeks of new activity at Punggye-ri, the site of all three previous North Korean tests. Specifically, satellite photos show two new tunnel entrances suggesting two upcoming explosions. So, while President Hassan Rouhani talks with diplomats in Geneva about the shape of a comprehensive agreement, his weapons specialists are likely beavering away in the hills of northeast North Korea, laying the groundwork for Iran’s first detonation—or maybe its fourth.
Beijing began transferring technology, materials, and equipment to Pakistan as early as 1974. The initial aid may have been only in the form of “crude technology,” but it started a decades-long collaboration. In the early 1980s, just when its officials began to make responsible-sounding statements about nuclear proliferation, Beijing sent Islamabad plans for a nuclear warhead and enough enriched uranium for two weapons.
Beginning in 1994, the Chinese sold 5,000 ring magnets, used in gas centrifuges for enriching uranium, to the laboratory of the infamous Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan. Beijing also appears to have provided nuclear test data, more modern warhead designs, and plutonium technology for which there are no peaceful uses. China may even have tested a Pakistani device on its soil. Chinese help was crucial, extensive, and continuous. “If you subtract Chinese assistance from the Pakistani nuclear weapons program, there is no program,” says Gary Milhollin of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control.
Various countries, including Iran, then got access to “China’s bomb” when Dr. Khan began to merchandise Armageddon. And when Khan was caught a decade ago, Beijing, after ensuring he received a quick pardon from his own government, then employed two backup stratagems: It permitted the North Koreans to proliferate and, more significantly, took over Khan’s proliferant role directly. What once was indirect became direct as Beijing began transferring materials and equipment straight to Tehran.
Amid rising anxiety, CRIF President Roger Cukierman tells journalists his group shouldn’t be seen as an annex to the Israeli embassy