South China Morning Post – Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran (AEOI), said on Wednesday that the Chinese were “reducing the speed of cooperation despite their commitment” to redesign the Arak heavy water reactor.
Salehi told the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency that China fears possible US sanctions on its nuclear-related firms if it continues its cooperation with his country.
He also urged China to re-engage with the project, but insisted that Iran had “alternative choices” if it continued to drag its feet.
The project was agreed as part of a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and the five UN permanent Security Council members – Britain, China, France, Russia and the US – plus Germany and the EU under which the Islamic republic would scale back its nuclear activities in exchange for reduced sanctions.
But the agreement has been in jeopardy since the election of Donald Trump, who pulled out of the agreement in 2017, claiming it was a “terrible deal” that did nothing to curb the nuclear threat from Iran.
The US has since imposed new sanctions on Iran, targeting its atomic energy organisation along with its banks, national airline and shipping companies.
The reactor at Arak, however, remained exempt from sanctions.
But the increased rivalry between the US and China has also raised the pressure on Beijing regarding its engagement with Iran.
Last month the Huawei executive Sabrina Meng Wenzhou was arrested in Canada for possible extradition to the US on fraud charges relating to alleged breaches of Washington’s sanctions on Iran – a move that has further damaged relations.
Earlier this month Behrooz Kamalvandi, a spokesman for the AEOI, also accused China of delaying work on the project.
“Redesigning the Arak reactor with China is supposed to [be proceeding] faster,” Kamalvandi told the state news agency.
“Iran and China [were supposed to] cooperate in installing the equipment in the redesigning process,” Kamalvandi said, adding that his county was willing to start the next phase of work on its own if necessary.
James Floyd Downes, a lecturer in comparative politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said Beijing may be “concerned about the possible sanctions on Chinese nuclear-related firms if it continues to cooperate with Iran”.
Downes continued: “At the same time, it is also likely that a closer relationship with Iran may negatively affect the continued trade war negotiations with the Trump Administration in Washington. This is likely to exacerbate tensions and the overall situation with Washington.”
Zhao Tong, a fellow at Carnegie-Tsinghua Centre for Global Policy, said it was difficult to determine why China had slowed down its work on the reactor.
“Even though Washington has withdrawn from the [nuclear deal] the US should still have a strong interest in seeing this reactor being converted as soon as possible, because the conversion could help reduce Iran’s potential capacity to pursue nuclear weapons,” Zhao said.
“I don’t see any reason why the United States would want to undercut China’s efforts in this regard. This is not a case of China-Iran cooperation to enhance Iran’s nuclear weapon capabilities. In fact, it is the opposite,” Zhao added.
Meanwhile, a two-day meeting of the five major nuclear powers ended on Thursday with the parties reaching a consensus on “a clear understanding of the direction of cooperation” and said they would “continue to work to promote the establishment of a zone free of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East”.
“The current international security situation is complicated and has evolved,” the statement continued, vowing to use the platform to maintain dialogue and a coordinated response to international challenges.
Both Downes and Zhao said the talks were likely to have included discussions on expanding their common ground on nuclear issues in the Middle East, including Iran’s atomic programme.