A Partner For Dealing With Iran?

By Zbigniew Brzezinski
Friday, November 30, 2007

The effort to resolve by negotiations North Korea's defiance of the global nonproliferation regime may yet prove successful. If so, does that experience offer a guide for coping with the challenge posed by Iran's expanding nuclear program? Would a comprehensive dialogue on this issue between America and China be useful?

If, indeed, the prolonged negotiations with North Korea result in a constructive resolution of the dangers posed by Pyongyang's open pursuit of nuclear weapons, it will have been largely due to decisive changes in the public postures of both the United States and China. America belatedly committed itself to, and then actively promoted, serious and prolonged multilateral negotiations among five concerned states and North Korea's rulers. Even more important, China's abandonment of its initial reticence eventually proved vital to convincing Pyongyang that its own political intransigence could become suicidal.

I recently visited China, where I had the opportunity to engage Chinese leaders in wide-ranging private conversations. I returned with two strong impressions regarding China's attitude toward the Iranian problem. The first is that the magnitude of China's internal transformation makes it vulnerable to global political and economic instability. China is especially worried about the consequences of any major eruption of violence in the Persian Gulf. This concern is palpable and justified if one considers the likely financial and political effects of a major U.S.-Iran collision. Thus China, despite its meteoric rise toward global preeminence, currently is geopolitically a status quo power.

Second, the Chinese strongly advocate that in dealing with Iran the United States be guided by strategic patience. Unlike the North Koreans, they note, the Iranians have denied any intent to acquire nuclear weapons. Accordingly, they argue that Iranian denials (despite their doubtful credibility) create openings for contriving a face-saving arrangement for an internationally sanctioned, non-threatening Iranian nuclear program.

In China's view, the United States should avoid being drawn into tit-for-tat salvos with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, since that strengthens Ahmadinejad domestically; America should also stop insisting on preconditions for negotiations that effectively demand that the Iranians publicly concede that they have been lying. Instead of contesting the veracity of Iranian proclamations, the focus should be on jointly negotiating a formula that effectively forsakes the allegedly unwanted nuclear weapons option.

Once it is more active in the negotiating process with Iran, China could help break the stalemate. It has a relatively cordial relationship with Tehran, whose rulers are not united but are increasingly isolated. Beijing and Tehran do not want their economic relationships disrupted; Iran supplies much-needed oil to China, and China supplies equally needed weapons and industrial products to Iran. But China's willingness to play a constructive role requires that the United States be guided by strategic patience. The Chinese fear that U.S. impatience to ratchet up sanctions may be somewhat motivated by the conviction that before long the sanctions will be proved ineffective and "other options on the table" might come into play.

Russia's uncertain role should be noted. Russia has been in talks with Iran and professes strongly that it desires a peaceful solution. These affirmations should not be dismissed out of hand. A conflict in the Persian Gulf might adversely affect Russia's interests, but its negative effects on Russia are inherently speculative. Any serious conflict will have international ripple effects, and Russian leaders have to assess that eventuality with prudence.

Nonetheless, Russia is an increasingly revisionist state, more and more openly positioning itself to attempt at least a partial reversal of the geopolitical losses it suffered in the early 1990s. Cutting off direct U.S. access to Caspian and Central Asian oil is high on the Kremlin's list. Moreover, longer-term geopolitical threats are seen by Moscow's elite as involving potential Chinese encroachments on Russia's empty but mineral-rich eastern areas and American political encroachments on the populated western areas of Russia's recently lost imperial domain.

In that context, the outbreak of a political conflict in the Persian Gulf may not be viewed by all Moscow strategists as a one-sided evil. The dramatic spike in oil prices would harm China and America while unleashing a further wave of anti-American hostility. In that context, Europe might distance itself from America while both Europe and China would become more dependent on Russia's energy supplies. Russia would clearly be the financial and geopolitical beneficiary.

The stakes of a serious crisis in the Persian Gulf are thus far-reaching. They could cause a more dramatic shift in the global distribution of power than even the one that occurred after the Cold War ended. Given this, a comprehensive, strategic dialogue between the United States and China regarding the relevance of their shared experience dealing with North Korea to the potential crisis with Iran could be timely and historically expedient.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter, is the author most recently of "Second Chance: Three Presidents and the Crisis of American Superpower."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company