Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao was on a low-profile visit to Saudi Arabia this weekend, where publicly Iran was one of the topics discussed and, privately, you can be fairly certain it was at the top of the agenda. At the U.N. Security Council, China and Russia stand between the Western countries, backed (at least in private) by Saudi Arabia, and harsher international sanctions against Iran for its alleged nuclear weapons program. And the consensus seems to be that the way to bring these countries around is by letting money do the talking: convincing them that, despite their vested interest in energy relationships with Iran, their overall economic situation favors getting onboard with further sanctions. That’s why it was the U.S. treasury secretary, and not, say, defense secretary or secretary of state, who was in China last week urging leaders (including Jiabao) to join the sanctions effort. Today, a diplomat is in South Korea trying to persuade it to import less Iranian oil. And, whaddya know, here is Iran cautioning Saudi Arabia against increasing its oil production. Oh, and here is Prime Minister Netanyahu wishing the Chinese people a happy new year in Mandarin.
Timothy Geithner didn’t produce, unfortunately, and so late last week, the Obama administration brought out the stick, sanctioning China’s foremost petroleum refiner for selling to Iran. (Despite being one of the world’s largest suppliers of crude, Iran lacks adequate refining capability and has to import usable forms of oil like gasoline.) China criticized the move, but the U.S. shouldn’t budge without a concession. (Meanwhile, send Israeli central banker Stanley Fischer back! Chinese leaders were apparently very, er, impressed when Fischer pointed out the adverse effects an Israeli military strike would have on global energy markets; maybe they need a reminder that Israel has kept the military option very much on the table, and that Iran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz and cause an energy spike even without an attack.)
On a separate note, I was struck by a passage I read this weekend in a review of the collected essays of Liu Xiaobo, the imprisoned Chinese democracy activist who won the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize. Recall that China blocks not only sanctions against Iran (which in addition to threatening regional stability also oppresses its own people) but also meaningful action against the murderous Assad regime in Syria, and listen to Xiaobo talk about his leaders:
At home, they defend their dictatorial system any way they can, [whereas abroad] they have become a blood-transfusion machine for a host of other dictatorships … . When the “rise” of a large dictatorial state that commands rapidly increasing economic strength meets with no effective deterrence from outside, but only an attitude of appeasement from the international mainstream, and if the Communists succeed in once again leading China down a disastrously mistaken historical road, the results will not only be another catastrophe for the Chinese people, but likely also a disaster for the spread of liberal democracy in the world. If the international community hopes to avoid these costs, free countries must do what they can to help the world’s largest dictatorship transform itself as quickly as possible into a free and democratic country.
Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.