Today's date:
Spring 2006

In the End, China Will Vote Against Iran at UN

Chris Patten was European commissioner for external affairs from 2000 to 2004 and the last British governor of Hong Kong, from 1992 to 1997. His most recent book is Cousins and Strangers: America, Britain and Europe in a New Century, 2006. He spoke with NPQ recently in New York.

NPQ | Despite the efforts of years of negotiations that you helped launch, Iran broke its agreements with Europe and insists on pursuing enrichment of uranium. Isn’t this a failure of Europe’s “soft approach”—to resolve issues through diplomacy instead of the threat of force?

Chris Patten | No, it is not a failure of soft power. First of all, I’m not sure Europe made the most of the opportunity to engage President (Mohammad) Khatami’s regime, which was more moderate than the current regime and certainly put out feelers to Europe and the United States for better relations three or four years ago.

The fact that the moderates didn’t seem to get anywhere with Europe, and America in particular, helped the more extreme elements to prevail in the populist campaign which characterized the last elections.

Second, we have to understand there is a real commitment across the various constituencies in Iran to ensure they have what it takes to protect national sovereignty. Everyone remembers the war with Iraq and now sees the American presence all around. In such a situation, Iranians are not so easily dissuaded from a sense of insecurity.

Having said all that, it is in the major interest of Europe and America and the rest of the region to prevent Iran from going nuclear. What we now have to do is make sure we put together a coalition that includes all the veto-wielding members of the United Nations Security Council so that when the vote ultimately comes we can ratchet up the pressure on the Iranians.

Unlike the Iraq war, the West is unified on Iran. The jury is still out on whether Russia and China will oblige. Without them, there won’t be enough pressure to move Iran.

NPQ | US Senator John McCain, a likely presidential candidate, has said that the only thing worse than war with Iran is Iran with a nuclear bomb. Would you agree with that? Would Europe go that far?

Patten | I don’t think there are many in Europe who think we should reach for the shotgun with Iran. We can work more intelligently than that. Also, it would be hard to take down Iran’s nuclear facilities. Is our intelligence in Iran any better than it was in Iraq? The real objective now is to put together and keep together a coalition that will put pressure on Iran.

Iran does not want to be treated as an outcast and leper. If it realizes in the end it can’t play China and Russia off the West, it will get real about the issue.

NPQ | Having been governor of Hong Kong, you know the Chinese inside and out. When push comes to shove, will they side with Iran, which supplies their oil, or the US, to which they sell all their goods? What will their sense of Realpolitik ultimately dictate?

Patten | They will play for time as much as they can, trying to avoid being in the crunch on this. Their need for energy has driven their policies elsewhere, for example in keeping genocide in Darfur off the UN Security Council agenda because they get oil from Sudan.

We’ve got to persuade the Chinese that nuclear proliferation, failed states in Africa and instability in the Middle East threaten them as well as the rest of us.

At present, China gets (nearly 20 percent) of its oil from Iran. If China takes a hard line now along with the West, ( Iran) will not cut off supplies forever. It will only be in the short term and not in the future when they need it more.

If China has to choose between annoying a US Congress that is in a protectionist mood or annoying Iran, reluctantly it will decide the lesser of the two costs is to annoy Iran.

NPQ | Is Iran’s objective ultimately to obtain a nuclear weapon?

Patten | Although there is a broad national consensus on the need for security, there are some who do want an actual weapon. More generally, there are those who want Iran to be able to pursue that option if Iranians feel under threat. In this, they would be like many countries around the world which have the intellectual capacity to go nuclear. However, it is extremely important for the stability of the region and the integrity of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) that we prevent that from happening.

NPQ | As for the integrity of the NPT, isn’t Iran right to point out that the tradeoff for non-proliferation is for the nuclear powers to move toward elimination of their own weapons? Otherwise, as many Iranians say, following the Indians, we have a global regime of “nuclear apartheid.”

Patten | Indeed, at the moment it must look to countries like Brazil and South Africa, which have opted not to go nuclear themselves, that we nuclear powers are simply calculating that “it is one more for us, one less for everybody else.”

I am passionately keen to toughen the non-proliferation treaty, in particular its verification procedures so that they are more intrusive. We have to be more proactive. Just look at how easy it was for A.Q. Khan in Pakistan to open his retail outlet for nuclear bombs. That is the best way to guarantee against nuclear terrorism, which is the greatest threat we face now.

But if we are to toughen up the regime for all those in the world who don’t have nuclear weapons, then the countries that do—in particular, the US, Britain and France—are going to have to do more themselves.

That involves greater transparency, a commitment to not do any more research and development on future weapons and the dismantling of more nuclear weapons that we clearly don’t need.