Sino-Iranian ties important

Updated: 2012-06-07 08:16

By Hua Liming (China Daily)

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It is unrealistic for the US to expect China to act in a way that is harmful to its interests and against its diplomatic principles

With both Israel and the United States recently saying they are willing to take military action against Iran if it doesn't halt its nuclear program, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit to China to attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Beijing has attracted a great deal of attention around the world.

Iran has been labeled a "rogue state" by the West and many people seem to associate it with Islamic fundamentalism or fervently anti-US sentiments.

Actually Iran is neither rogue nor fundamentalist, and the anti-US sentiment that is common among its people has historical causes.

Due to its rich resources and sensitive strategic location, Iran was a victim in the "Great Game" between Britain and Russia in the 19th century, and was dominated by the United States during the Cold War. Hatred and lack of trust of the US are deeply rooted in the country.

Therefore, when Islamic forces overthrew the Pahlavi Dynasty in 1979 and set up an Islamic republic instead, they set their foreign policy against the US and Israel to unite the people. The new republic won favor with the people not only because it fought against social injustice and cultural Westernization, but, more importantly, because it restored the nation's dignity. National dignity, once lost and now regained, is precious to Iranians. They want the decisions concerning their lives to be made in Teheran.

But the change of regime in Iran made the US lose its influence on the southern border of the former Soviet Union, as well as control of the Strait of Hormuz, the key oil route. The hostage crisis in 1979 and the Iran-Contra Affair in 1986 further demonized Iran in the US.

Owing to its Shiite Islamic ideology, the Islamic republic of Iran also faces the suspicion and hostility of its Sunni-led neighbors. Iraq attacked Iran the second year after the republic was founded and the ensuing war lasted eight years.

As soon as the war with Iraq ended, Iran decided to pursue a nuclear program in order to defend itself and extend its influence in the region. But the US is not willing to let its dominance in the Middle East be challenged by a regional power like Iran; so the hostility and antagonism between the two countries has grown.

In contrast, Sino-Iranian relations are one of the oldest bilateral relations in the world and valued by both sides. For the past 41 years since they established diplomatic relations, both countries have experienced domestic changes; but their friendship has withstood the test of time and continued to advance. The foundations for their friendship are that China has never intervened in Iran's domestic affairs and their economies are complementary, offering huge potential for cooperation.

The US hopes to enlist China's help in dealing with Iran, but that's impossible because China will never join the zero-sum-game between the US and Iran. As two leading economies in the world, the increasingly mutual independent China and US share many interests in common, of which nuclear non-proliferation is one. But it is also in China's interest to maintain normal, friendly relations with Iran.

The disagreement between the US and China has become especially serious with the US imposing sanctions to restrict Iran's oil exports as China is a big importer of Iranian oil. But maintaining relations with Iran is a matter concerning China's vital interests and China's fundamental diplomatic principles. The US should respect China's friendly relations with Iran, as well as its interests.

Maybe US decision-makers could read what Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, US scholars on Middle East affairs, wrote in their blog in July 2011: "Beijing continues to have a clear (and strong) interest in avoiding serious disagreements with Washington, over Iran or most anything elseThe 'asks' from the United States can only get harder for China from here on. The United States cannot forever ask other countries to act in ways that are harmful to their interests."

The US may gain some short-term victories by asking China to act against its own interests but this will only sour the Sino-US relationship in the long run.

To prevent disagreements over Iran from harming bilateral relations, it is necessary for the two sides to respect each other's interests and bottom line. That requires the US change its hostility toward Iran.

The author is a former ambassador to Iran and now a researcher at the China Institute of International Studies.