After a year of diplomatic overtures to Iran over its nuclear program returned few tangible results, the Obama administration has shifted to a harder tact. It seeks to impose additional sanctions on Iranian leaders, but such action would be greatly strengthened if it could be enacted through the United Nations Security Council.
Such an avenue has a few obstacles, the biggest of which is the veto-wielding China, which has to this point opposed all calls for sanctions against Iran. The rift between the United States and China in their approaches to Iran can be seen in how each country’s respective media responses to the aftermath of Iran’s Presidential elections last year.
In the United States, reporters emphasized the opposition protests and allegations of vote rigging as the Interior Ministry announced that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had won enough of the vote to avoid a runoff against his chief rival, the reformist Mir-Hossein Mousavi. A good deal of attention was turned to Twitter, which opposition protesters used as a tool to organize and disseminate information. Many pundits suggested that the unrest could lead to a revolution mirroring the 1979 revolution that brought Iran’s government.
China’s state-owned media had a markedly different response. While the American media actively questioned the legitimacy of the results, the Chinese media put the burden of proof on the opposition protesters. Instead of focusing on the unrest following the vote, the main story on the topic was Ahmadinejad’s win. Furthermore, stories about the massive protests in Tehran were downplayed and weren’t treated as front page news. So, while American news agencies were still actively reporting on the situation for weeks, the story died down pretty quickly in Chinese media outlets.
This dichotomy is illustrative of the differing views between American elites and the Chinese government. The biases of the American media narrative of the facts on the ground were rooted in multiple complementary factors.
The first is the shared history of the United States and Iran. In 1953, the United States acted to overthrow the democratically elected government of then Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddeq at the behest of the British after it nationalized the Anglo-Iranian oil company. This was followed by a decade and a half of autocratic rule by the Shah of Iran Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. His rule was ended in 1979 by a revolution that culminated in the creation of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Later that year, students took the United State Embassy hostage, an act later endorsed by Iran’s new Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini and diplomatic relations have not recovered since.
The second comes from our own national identity as a secular democracy. The story of the Iranian opposition rising up against an oppressive theocratic regime that has violated democratic process has deep resonance in this country and has led to considerable
The third and perhaps most important factor is Iran’s relationship to our country’s interests, assets, and allies in the Middle East. In addition to the nuclear program in question, Iran has been waging a proxy war against Israel through funding funneled to Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. Furthermore, Iran is poised to exert a strong influence on its neighbor to the west, Iraq, as U.S. troops withdraw. In fact, the negotiations to form a new governing coalition after Iraq’s recent parliamentary elections were held in Tehran. There are many in the American foreign policy establishment who would like to see the Islamic Republic toppled and replaced by a government more amenable to our country’s interests.
While the combination of past hostilities, national ideologies, and geopolitical position was a powerful driver of the American media narrative, China’s position with regard to Iran is almost the exact opposite of our own.
Iran is China’s largest foreign supplier of oil, a resource that is necessary to fuel China’s rapid economic growth. Iran is also an observer nation in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, a military alliance between China, Russia, Khazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. The Chinese government wasn’t eager to push a narrative promoting an angry uprising against the government of one of its economic partners and potential military allies.
All this leads to the question: Why would China support U.S. efforts to put pressure on Iran?