"Of course we understand that Iran aims to acquire nuclear weapons and we are concerned about this," said Prof. Yin Gang. "While it declares that its nuclear program is intended for peaceful purposes, the Chinese government and intelligence services believe that Iran wants to build a nuclear bomb." This clear statement was made by an independent Chinese expert on the Middle East who recently visited Israel at the invitation of Signal, an organization that furthers academic ties between Israel and China.
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Gang, who was here to participate in a symposium at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, is a professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. He defines himself as an independent scholar who is not affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party or the government, and his knowledge of Iran also stems from visits there. His insights offer a glimpse into Chinese foreign policy and its apparent contradictions, which Israel sometimes has difficulty understanding.
Like Russia, China has refused to join the United States and other Western countries in imposing new, tighter sanctions on Iran in response to the latter's refusal to obey UN Security Council resolutions demanding that it cease uranium enrichment. But on the other hand, China did vote for weaker sanctions against the ayatollahs' regime. China purchases oil from Iran, but has refused to build nuclear reactors there or sell it equipment for its nuclear program.
Nevertheless, Ying views China's policy on the Middle East in general, and Iran in particular, as clear and consistent. "It is a policy based on our philosophy of refraining from taking sides in conflicts," he said. "We try to remain neutral in the Middle East conflict. In the past, during the Cold War, we sided with the Arabs against Israel. But this has changed. Today we see ourselves as friends of Israel, and at the same time we attempt to maintain friendly relations with all countries. We are friends of Israel and the Turks and the Iranians and the Arabs."
In his estimation, "China cannot do much to influence developments in the region. We do not export revolution and we do not support democratic movements. We need oil for our economy, and for that we need a stable Middle East. Only when there is peace will oil flow."
A canceled sale
To prove his claim that China acts responsibly in the international arena, he cited the way relations between China and Iran have developed over the years. In 1993, the two countries signed an agreement under which China would sell Iran two relatively small nuclear reactors for producing electricity. But two years later, Russia offered it a larger reactor, whose construction in Bushehr has just been completed and is now being connected to Iran's national grid.
"Only then, in 1995, did America and Israel begin to understand that Iran's nuclear program would also allow it to produce nuclear weapons," Yin said. "Washington exerted heavy pressure on us, and we decided to cancel all our nuclear agreements with Iran. The Iranians were angry and imposed various embargoes on us, accusing us of caving in to American and Zionist pressure."
Ever since, he said, China has been working methodically to convince Iran to cooperate with the international community, demonstrate goodwill and prove that its nuclear program is really intended for peaceful purposes rather than to produce nuclear weapons. For this reason, China also supported Security Council decisions to sanction Iran. "It is not in China's interest for Iran to have nuclear weapons," he emphasized.
Now and then, there are reports of Chinese companies aiding Iran's nuclear effort.
"These are private rather than government firms. Whenever there are cases of illegal trade that violates international decisions, the government of China investigates. Perhaps this is not widely known, but in 2006, in the wake of a UN Security Council resolution, we stopped selling all weapons to Iran."
But you are not willing to be more aggressive to prevent them from reaching their goal - the acquisition of nuclear weapons.
"We definitely want to stop them. In our estimation, Iran has not yet made a final decision. They have the desire to obtain nuclear weapons, but they have not yet made a final decision on it.
"I recently met with the Iranian ambassador in Beijing and told him, 'You have missed the opportunity to produce nuclear weapons. If you build one now, you will have to fight the United States, Israel, the West and the Arab states, too.'
"I suggested taking Japan's route. Japan is a nuclear power. It has nuclear reactors and immense amounts of stockpiled plutonium and enriched uranium, but it has decided not to build nuclear weapons. Of course, it has the option to do so. If Japan wants to, it can build nuclear weapons within a very short time."
How did he respond?
"He simply listened and did not respond."
To underscore China's unique diplomatic policy, Yin made the following surprising statement: "China is opposed to any military action against Iran that would damage regional stability and interfere with the flow of oil. But China will not stop Israel if it decides to attack Iran. For all these reasons, Israel and the Middle East need a country like China. Israel needs China's power."