Center for Strategic Decision Research



Safeguarding the Integrity of NPT Mechanisms and Handling The Iranian Nuclear Issue Properly: A Chinese Perspective

Major General Zhan Maohai
Vice Chairman of the China Institute of International Strategic Studies
Former Director General of Foreign Affairs, Chinese Defense Ministry

The Iranian nuclear issue is becoming one of the thorniest issues in the international arena. This issue draws attention all over the world, including China, which is working to find a resolution to the problem. In this address I am going to share my personal views on the Iranian nuclear issue.

The basic independent unit of the current international system is the sovereign state. The principle of sovereignty enables the system to operate and makes all countries, regardless of their size or wealth, equal. Within this system, every country must comply with the principles of international law and treaties and must solve international disputes and conflicts through peaceful means or diplomatic channels. Therefore the Iranian nuclear issue should be resolved peacefully through international mechanisms.


Iran’s idea regarding its development of nuclear technology is completely different from that of Western countries. Iran insists that its nuclear program has only peaceful purposes, but Western countries, particularly the United States, accuse Iran of developing nuclear weapons under the guise of a peaceful program. I actually believe that there are three possible alternatives: first, that Iran is conducting R&D for the peaceful use of nuclear technology under the monitoring and guidance of IAEA; second, that Iran is secretly conducting R&D of nuclear weapons and building nuclear weapons outside IAEA monitoring; and third, that Iran is conducting secret R&D of nuclear weapons as part of normal development and employment of civilian nuclear technology or using the civilian nuclear technology for military ends. It is difficult to determine whether a country’s nuclear R&D is for civilian or military ends without sufficient evidence. Although Western countries, particularly the U.S., have long suspected Iran of clandestine development of a nuclear weapons program, no evidence has ever been found that supports the accusation. Therefore, the current nuclear development can be regarded only as civilian nuclear R&D, though it is possible that Iran will use nuclear technology for military purposes. This possibility can be either a strategic deterrence or a certain threat to America, Israel, and other neighboring countries.

We all know that Iran began its nuclear energy program in the 1950s, with the support of America and other Western countries. In 1979 the Iranian Islamic Revolution put the nuclear energy program at a standstill, but in the early 1990s Iran signed an agreement with Russia for the peaceful use of nuclear energy. The United States was unhappy with this agreement and accused Iran repeatedly of secretly developing a nuclear weapons program under the guise of a peaceful-use program, and adopted a containment policy towards Iran.

In early 2003, Iran declared that it had found and successfully extracted uranium that could be used to provide fuel for a nuclear power station. The U.S. reacted to the news because sensitive uranium enrichment technology is strictly forbidden by the international community in order to prevent proliferation. American military experts believed that Iran’s possession of enriched uranium was equivalent to its possessing nuclear weapons, warned Iran against continuing all its activities relevant to uranium enrichment, and threatened to take the Iranian nuclear issue to the U.N. Security Council to establish sanctions against Iran. In the meantime, IAEA passed several resolutions asking Iran to cooperate with it, sign an NPT Appendix, and allow IAEA to carry out a schedule of strict inspections to make certain that Iran terminated uranium enrichment activities.

With the active mediation of the international community, especially France, Britain, and Germany, Iran adopted a series of measures concerning the nuclear issue. On December 18, 2003, Iran signed the NPT Appendix and in April 2004 declared it would suspend assembling uranium enrichment centrifuges. However, after Iran’s new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, came to power, Iran not only resumed its nuclear program but also took a tough stance towards America, causing an escalation of problems between the two countries. It has been reported that American military experts are now discussing the possibility of military attacks against Iran.

The issues between Iran and America are at the core of the Iranian nuclear issue. The crisis appears to have resulted because Iran failed to comply with NPT and the regulations of IAEA and because its development of nuclear technology constitutes a grave threat to the security interests of Israel, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and other countries in the region. In reality, the crisis is a result of problems left over from history, namely, the existence of geostrategic and structure issues between America and Iran. Since the end of the Cold War, the Middle East’s geostrategic significance has greatly increased, and the collapse of the Saddam regime elevated Iran’s strategic status to a major regional power. But as U.S. armed forces have entered Central Asia, Afghanistan, and Iraq, Iran has been the only barrier to America’s building a Central Asia/Middle East/South Asia link.

After the September 11 terrorist attacks, Iran was categorized by the U.S. as one of the axes of evil, and America intended to get rid of that regime. Certainly solving the Iranian nuclear issue will help America have greater supremacy in the region and gain a leading edge against Russia there. It will also enable the U.S. to realize its Middle East and Central Asia programs both militarily and politically. But the issues between Iran and the United States are complicated and will be difficult to solve.


I believe there are three possible reasons why Iran developed its nuclear program. First, it intends to deter America and America’s preemptive military strategy, preventing the U.S. from striking Iran and assuring Iran’s national security. Since American military forces entered Afghanistan, Iraq, and Azerbaijan and overthrew Saddam’s regime, Iran has felt the need to augment its security. The Bush administration’s hostile attitude toward Iran solidified and consolidated anti-American feeling in Iran and served as an excuse for Iranian anti-American diplomacy. At the same time Iran concluded that R&D and possession of nuclear weapons were an effective deterrent and an important strategic option that could help Iran increase security and prevent America from using force against it. Saddam Hussein was overthrown because he did not have nuclear weapons.

Second, developing a nuclear program can help Iran win prestige in the Islamic world and build its regional power status. Whether or not a country has nuclear weapons is a direct reflection of its strength and weakness and a measure of its international influence. Some Westerners believe that Iran is taking pains to obtain nuclear technology and know-how in order to gain the status of guardian of Islamic followers. The active use of Islamic elements along with its nuclear program is not only a strategic way to ensure Iran’s security and become less isolated but also increases its military strength, enhances its ability to counter Israel, and expands its influence for gaining regional power.

Third, according to international law and international treaties, every country has the legal right to conduct peaceful R&D and to make usable nuclear energy, and that right should not be stripped away because of the big powers’ opposition. As the Iranian foreign minister pointed out, Iran has the right to develop nuclear energy for peaceful ends, and as a responsible member of NPT, Iran is justified in doing so. Mohamed El Baradei, IAEA Director General, also declared that as an independent country Iran has the right to conduct uranium enrichment research and projects and to use the material for civilian technology; the research and projects, however, should be completely transparent to international experts.


From the above analysis, it is clear to see that the Iranian nuclear crisis is complicated. On the one hand, Iran has the legal right to develop nuclear technology. On the other hand, Iranian nuclear R&D has aroused suspicion and uneasiness in the international community. Because of these two points, the international community, particularly the western countries, should manage the crisis cautiously until all aspects have been investigated and inspected. Otherwise, the crisis could lead to further disorder and chaos in the Middle East.

Diplomatic efforts within the framework of IAEA are still the wise option for managing the crisis. Peaceful approaches are needed to promote compliance with the purposes and principles of NPT and the relevant resolutions of IAEA and the U.N. Security Council. Such peaceful means are not only conducive to safeguarding the effectiveness of NPT, strengthening the authority of IAEA, and ensuring that every country develops nuclear energy for peaceful ends, but they are conducive to peace and stability and development in the Middle East as well as the world at large. They are also in the interest of all parties concerned.

The international community should therefore carefully review the positive and adverse effects generated by the past activities of the parties concerned and remain calm, flexible, and wise. It should also show more patience and restraint, offer more time for diplomatic efforts, and refrain from taking any actions that would escalate the crisis, providing a more favorable environment for diplomatic negotiations and maneuvers.

For its part, Iran should strictly comply with all the obligations of the treaties. It should comply with the resolutions endorsed by the board of IAEA, cooperate fully, enhance transparency, and respond to the suspicions of IAEA and the international community. Iran should also take measures that can enhance mutual confidence, including the confidence-building measures laid out for uranium enrichment, and create conditions that will enable settling the crisis within the framework of IAEA.

That organization, after many years of deliberate investigations and inspections in Iran, has not found the nuclear dossier to be transferred into nuclear weapons and other explosive devices but is still investigating because some problems have not been solved. At present IAEA is not certain whether Iran has nuclear doses that were not reported to the organization or if it has conducted secret nuclear activities. Therefore IAEA should continue its independent and fair investigation and inspection and Iran should cooperate with IAEA to solve the crisis at the earliest possible date.

In the meantime, all parties should broaden their minds and explore new solutions both to safeguard nonproliferation objectives and to assure Iran of its right to peaceful use of nuclear energy. Russia has offered a good proposal that would allow Iran to conduct uranium enrichment in Russia or to develop and use its nuclear technology in ways recognized by IAEA. Reportedly the Euro-3 is also going to put forward a proposal for a light water reactor and we welcome all other workable proposals that would benefit both Iran and the other parties concerned.


The last point I would like to discuss is the future of the Iranian nuclear crisis. It goes without saying that Iran’s continuing to pursue a nuclear technology program and expand its influence in the Islamic world would constitute a great threat to pro-Western countries such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Israel and would disturb the geopolitical balance of the Middle East and the Persian Gulf. Countries such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan have made it clear that they would not like to see Iran become the dominant power in the region, and Iranian possession of nuclear weapons would certainly be a threat to the stability of the entire Arabic world. The Western countries, including Israel, have also united as a result of the crisis to prevent Iran from enlarging its influence in the Muslim world. All of this has left Iran in a very embarrassed and passive position, opposing both the west and the Arabic world.

On April 11, 2006, Iran declared that it had succeeded in extracting enriched uranium, which means that it acquired the know-how and the capability to make nuclear weapons. Both America and Russia believe that Iran is going in the wrong direction, and I fear that the probability of armed conflict between America and Iran is now higher. Of course, it is up to the two parties to choose war or peace, and I hope that both will strictly comply with all international principles.

For its part, Iran should correctly define its vital national interests and recognize its position in the Middle East and the world. Iran should also fully understand the imbalance between its military forces and America’s forces and choose the correct option. For its part, America should drop its hostile policy towards Iran in order to safeguard peace and stability in the region and actively work to find peaceful solutions with Iran. By de-escalating the conflict, America and Iran cannot only safeguard their security and other interests, they can provide more opportunities for cooperation among the EU, Russia, China, and other countries and jointly promote economic prosperity and development in the Middle East, in the interest of all.

China’s policy on this issue has been manifest and consistent out of the need to safeguard peace and stability in the Middle East and the world. China upholds the authority of the international nuclear safeguard mechanisms and opposes any form of proliferation. My country sincerely hopes to resolve the issue through diplomatic means and actively supports any suggestions for achieving a peaceful solution. To sum up my points

  • Iran's right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy should be respected;
  • All parties concerned should comply with the agreements and regulations of IAEA and the United Nations;
  • The issue should be solved peacefully in a diplomatic way.


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