China urges US to seek Iran nuclear talks after ‘new developments’

Teddy Ng and Rachel Zhang, South China Morning Post

Posted at Mar 26 2021 09:41 PM

Beijing has told Washington there have been “new developments” in the Iran nuclear situation and urged it to restart talks on the issue.

Chinese foreign vice-minister Ma Zhaoxu’s plea to the US special envoy for Iran, Robert Malley, came as Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was due to arrive in Iran.

It also came days after top diplomats from China and the United States agreed at high-level talks in Alaska that Iran was one of the issues on which they could work together, despite their many differences, including on human rights in Xinjiang.

“There are some new changes in the current Iranian nuclear situation. All parties should increase their sense of urgency,” Ma was quoted as saying in a Chinese foreign ministry statement on Thursday. “The United States should take practical actions as soon as possible. The US and Iran should meet each other halfway and re-enter the deal.

“China will continue to play a constructive role in pushing the comprehensive agreement back on track.”

Wang is visiting Iran on Friday as part of his week-long tour of the Middle East, to consolidate Chinese influence in the region and counter any impact from a new wave of international sanctions over alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang, in China’s far west.

Diplomatic observers said Wang would try to mediate between Tehran and Washington, and there was urgency for Iran and the US to engage after Tehran announced it was enriching uranium – indicating it was moving its nuclear programme closer to weapons-grade enrichment levels.

“The core issue of the Iran nuclear deal is essentially whether Iran has the right to process enriched uranium,” Zhang Jiadong, an international relations professor at Fudan University, said.

“Despite all the recent disputes over Xinjiang and beyond, China and the US have to cooperate on this issue. It would be irresponsible for them to give up collaborating on it, and would weaken the international leadership of both countries.”

Zhang said China could play a mediation role, even if the task was made more difficult by the deterioration of its relations with the US.

China signed a nuclear pact with Iran in 2015 along with the US, Britain, Russia, France and Germany, but Washington abandoned it in 2018 under then president Donald Trump and reimposed sanctions on Iran.

Trump’s successor Joe Biden has said the US will rejoin if Iran first returns to its commitments under the agreement, but Tehran has insisted that Washington take the first step by lifting its sanctions.

“The US and Iran have conflicts of interest, whereas relations between China and Iran are developing well,” said Zhang Guihong, director of Fudan University’s UN and international organisations centre.

“China may want to restore dialogue with the US by mediating in international issues like the Iran nuclear deal, rather than through bilateral issues.

“The US and China share a common interest in preventing nuclear proliferation. It’s one of the few fronts where China has common ground with the West.”

Wang’s trip to the Middle East follows disagreements between China and the US in Alaska over the South China Sea, Taiwan and alleged human rights abuses in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

In a meeting on Wednesday with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Wang said Beijing appreciated the Islamic kingdom’s support on China’s policies on Xinjiang and Hong Kong.

Wang told Saudi television station Al-Arabiya that Washington and Tehran should “resume implementation of the Iran nuclear agreement”.

“The US should take substantive measures to ease unilateral sanctions against Iran … while Iran should resume fulfilling its commitments on the nuclear front,” Wang said.

On Thursday, in a meeting with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu, Wang called on Turkey to respect China’s core interests, including Xinjiang.

The European Union, the US, Britain and Canada have imposed sanctions on Chinese officials over Xinjiang. Beijing has announced tit-for-tat sanctions against the EU, the US and Britain.

Despite their deep differences, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in Alaska that the two sides had intersecting interests on Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan and climate change.