Consider China, by many measures the most significant emerging country in the world. It wants to maintain preferred access to Iran’s energy resources, but if conflict results from Iran’s nuclear aspirations, China will be paying much higher a price for those resources. The prospect of a threat to the stability of the greater Middle East and to the flow of oil should give China an incentive to support robust sanctions against Iran. But it is not clear whether China’s leaders will recognize this and act in their country’s own long-term self interest. ~Richard Haass

Put another way, China ought to align itself completely with America’s diplomatic agenda on Iran sanctions, because the U.S. or one of our allies might attack Iran and create serious economic difficulties for China if sanctions are unsuccessful in getting Iran to limit a nuclear program that Iran is never going to limit. Of course, as far as Chinese economic interests are concerned, sanctions are already a form of conflict that will raise their costs. “Robust” sanctions would involve choking off vital supplies to Iran and making normal economic life in Iran very difficult, which would in turn harm Chinese economic interests. China doesn’t recognize that “robust” Iran sanctions are in its long-term self-interest because they aren’t, so it is hard to see why China is going act in a way that conflicts with their self-interest.

Haass’ position is that China should go along with a confrontational diplomatic track that conflicts with its interests under threat that the U.S. could pursue an even more confrontational military track that will conflict with its interests even more. This is essentially an ultimatum, but Haass overlooks that following through on the “threat” is something that will harm the U.S. and our allies just as much as, if not more than, it will harm China. Once we get to the heart of the argument (“Do something you don’t want to do because we say so, or else we will make things very difficult for you”), it is no wonder that China wants no part of “robust” sanctions. It seems that China is acting fairly rationally as far as its own interests are concerned. The real question we should be asking is why we are pursuing a policy course that is both futile and could ultimately lead to a conflict that would do significant damage to us and our allies. Perhaps if we spent less time assuming that we know the long-term interests of other states and more on assessing what is in America’s interest, we would not find ourselves in these ridiculous predicaments.