Commentary Magazine


Scoffed Power

Noah Pollak has at least found some comic relief in Obama’s “Israel ploy” with China. The old “my buddy here is crazy, don’t know if I can hold him back” routine is as well-worn a device in the soft-power toolkit as it is in Hollywood scriptwriting. We should not, however, buy the credulous, one-dimensional implication of the Washington Post story that a veiled threat to unleash Israel got the Chinese on board for censuring Iran. In Beijing they have plenty of their own intelligence on the Middle East, and they also know a ploy when they see one.

We find a much better explanation for China’s cooperation in this November 19 piece from Reuters on the prognosis for sanctions. It didn’t get much play in the mainstream media, possibly because of the title, “West lowers sights for new Iran sanctions at UN.” It clarifies quite baldly how the cost of bringing East and West together in the P5+1 is being lowered: by accommodating Russia and China and dropping the idea of targeting Iran’s oil and gas sector.

Out in the real world, China is obviously not taking a harder line with Iran. The day before joining the censure motion, the Chinese inked a $6.5 billion gasoline refinery contract with Tehran, the fourth major oil-and-gas contract between the two countries in 2009. China continues to supply gasoline to Iran, as it has been doing openly since September. Beijing’s actual trade posture with Iran has not shifted by even an inch.

Trade may be involved in this drama in another form, however: deal-making with U.S. tariffs. President Obama, under pressure from the unions, has been threatening China with punitive tariffs on key imports, including auto tires and manufactured steel pipes. China strenuously opposes the tariffs, of course, and relief from them is a high priority. In what was very possibly a quid pro quo, the approved tariff schedule for steel pipes — announced simultaneously this past week with China’s agreement to censure Iran — reflected a top rate of only half what the Department of Commerce had proposed in September.

Soft power is all about the horse-trading, of course. But it’s hard to find the “smart” power in this deal. If it was a horse trade, we paid too much. Whether the bait we used was the “Israel threat” or U.S. tariffs, the deal was ultimately set up by lowering to zero the cost of China’s participation. The censure motion is a meaningless gesture that carries no guaranteed consequences, a concession so costless to China that we should have paid nothing for it.

Undeterred, Iran is doubling down on its recalcitrance by announcing plans for new uranium-enrichment sites. We might almost suppose that the Iranian regime was scoffing at all this fascinatingly clever soft power — or at least smirking a little.