China asserts nuclear influence before key Iran deal talks

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China is drawing a link between nuclear nonproliferation talks and a Western submarine pact in the Pacific that it opposes, potentially adding another obstacle to the tortured process of reaching a deal with Iran.

Beijing had already emerged as a linchpin to the success or failure of talks resuming Monday in Vienna on how to restore the 2015 nuclear accord between Tehran and world powers.

The decision by China’s envoy at the International Atomic Energy Agency this week to elevate Beijing’s concerns over the so-called AUKUS atomic submarine deal between the U.S., U.K. and Australia alongside international worries about Iran’s nuclear program suggests Chinese ambitions are growing.

“Why do the U.S. and U.K. say Iran can’t enrich uranium above 3.7%, while on the other hand they plan to transfer tons of highly enriched 90% material to AUKUS?” China’s envoy to the IAEA, Wang Qun, said on Friday. “This is an example of a double standard.”

In a note circulated earlier among diplomats in Vienna and seen by Bloomberg, Wang argued the AUKUS agreement “constitutes serious risks of nuclear proliferation.” On Friday, he went further, branding Aukus a “small Anglo-Saxon clique” that could prompt more countries to go nuclear.

China said that the inclusion of its concerns at this week’s IAEA meeting should be the start of a new international process to scrutinize the AUKUS deal. Wang sat next to his Russian counterpart, Ambassador Mikhail Ulyanov, in a rare joint briefing of the two powers. The Russian representative echoed Wang’s concern.

“China has developed a strategic plan in the coming years” that is based on more assertive diplomacy at the IAEA “with the help of its Russian ally,” said Nadia Helmy, a Cairo-based security analyst who tracks Beijing’s activities in the Middle East.

Whether China’s gambit succeeds in gumming up the AUKUS deal, under which Australia’s submarines could still be decades away, this week’s move at the IAEA risks muddying the waters around the Iran talks. The Islamic Republic denies it seeks nuclear weapons, but concerns that Iran is a proliferation risk was the reason global powers sealed the 2015 accord.

With the world’s No. 2 gas and No. 4 oil reserves, Iran has been cultivating tighter integration with Beijing to help replace sanctioned trade with Western economies. Tehran joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a Chinese- and Russian-led economic-security alliance across central Asia. Iran and China have also entered into a 25-year trade deal potentially worth billions of dollars.

China has suggested it’s up to the U.S. to make the first move in order to revive the 2015 deal, and last week said it “reached a broad consensus” with Iran and Russia on next week’s negotiations. The Islamic Republic elevated its nuclear activities beyond agreed thresholds after the administration of then-U.S. President Donald Trump broke the accord three years ago and reimposed U.S. sanctions.

In linking next week’s seventh round of talks in Vienna to AUKUS, Beijing is drawing on a little used section of international nuclear law written during the height of the Cold War, which allows countries to potentially exempt enriched uranium from international inspections.

By permitting Australia to obtain weapons-grade uranium to fuel its submarines, the U.K. and U.S. are potentially opening the door to other countries to do the same thing, degrading the global monitoring regime.

Iran is being threatened with censure at the IAEA because it’s unable to explain the source of decades-old uranium particles detected at undeclared facilities. In the case of AUKUS, more than a ton of bomb-grade fuel would need to be transferred for Australia’s submarines, the building and commissioning of which will take years or even decades.

“There’s no real concern about Australia diverting the material,” said Sharon Squassoni, a former State Department nonproliferation adviser currently at George Washington University. “It’s less a question of the diversion of that high-enriched fuel than another country trying to draw that box around what is not subject to inspection.”

Iran, which is already producing highly enriched uranium, has suggested it too could pursue nuclear submarines.

At international forums like the IAEA, China’s massive atomic-power program gives major diplomatic currency. The country’s planning at least 150 new reactors in the next 15 years that will cost as much as $440 billion and catapult China past the U.S. as the world’s largest generator of nuclear power.

“China mainly aims to increase its assertiveness in international organizations including the IAEA to create a new balance of power,” said Helmy, who’s studied and taught at universities in China and Europe. “China seeks to be close to the IAEA to restrict and limit U.S. influence.”

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