Sharpening Corners of the US-Iran-China Triangle
In sidestepping a question Monday on whether the United States was cutting China some slack over oil imports from Iran, State Department spokesman Ned Price highlighted the links between US-China relations and efforts to revive Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal.
While the administration of President Joe Biden wants to restore the deal – the JCPOA, Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – it has continued the ‘maximum pressure’ sanctions introduced by President Donald Trump, who withdrew Washington from the agreement in 2018.
Price was responding to a report in the Wall Street Journal that the Biden administration had discussed taking action over China’s oil imports from Iran, which have grown from near zero to as much as 500,000 – 1 million barrels a day. The spokesman said there was no loosening of enforcing Trump’s measures that give the US authorities powers to sanction any entity buying Iranian oil or dealing with Iran’s financial system.
The relationship of US sanctions and the JCPOA was aired in Tehran Tuesday by government spokesman Ali Rabiei in saying “an initial agreement” had been rejected by Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC).
Talks in Vienna since April involving the remaining JCPOA members – China, France, Germany, Iran, Russia, and the United Kingdom – and indirectly the US have focused on which US sanctions violate the JCPOA, and on how Iran would bring its nuclear program back within JCPOA limits, which it has breached since 2019.
‘Main Negotiations Done’
Speaking for the government of President Hassan Rouhani, which leaves office in early August, Rabiei insisted the “main part of the negotiations,” including “an understanding on lifting the bulk of sanctions,” had been concluded. Nonetheless, the Supreme National Security Council, he said, had decided to continue talks in order to meet a law passed by Iran’s parliament December that required an expansion of the nuclear program unless other JCPOA signatories “fully remove the anti-Iran sanctions.”
The Vienna talks are now in recess. Abbas Araghchi, the deputy foreign minister who has led Tehran’s team in Vienna, tweeted Saturday that further progress awaited the inauguration of President-elect Ebrahim Raisi (Raeesi). There has been speculation as to whether the former chief justice will toughen Iran’s stance.
The Wall Street Journal story claimed a tougher US stance towards China was being discussed as an option if and when talks in Vienna broke down. According to the Journal, US officials hoped the threat would “encourage Tehran to conclude a nuclear deal and raise the cost of abandoning stalled negotiations.”
The Journal noted that Iranian officials and traders had become “increasingly adept at evading sanctions, using cryptocurrency to avoid the banking system and carrying out covert ship-to-ship transfers at sea to conceal the origin of their cargo.”
Reporting Sunday a phone call between Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Iran’ Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, the official Chinese news agency Xinhua stressed Beijing’s readiness to work with the incoming Raisi government “to carry forward the fine traditions of mutual trust and mutual support between the two countries, strengthen friendly exchanges and cooperation, continue jointly opposing unilateralism and bullying behavior, [and] firmly uphold multilateralism…”
China is Tehran’s main export market. The head of Iran’s Trade Promotion Organization, Hamid Zadboum, said Saturday that 29 percent of Iran’s exports went to China between March 21 and June 21.
Chinese and Iranian interests are converging over Afghanistan, with shared concerns over the Taliban in the wake of the US military withdrawal, and in Syria, where Wang, as the first foreign dignitary to visit Bashar al-Assad since he won 95 percent of the vote in May’s election, offered to bring Syria into Iran’s Belt and Road initiative, China’s $4-trillion infrastructure plan that it plans to reach 60 percent of the world’s population. Iran in March signed a 25-year co-operation agreement with Beijing.