Since the United States increased its sanctions against Iran in May, the nuclear standoff with Tehran has yet to settle down.
One of the ways the Islamic republic has withstood US economic pressure is China, which has continued to procure Iranian oil.
During a recent meeting in Beijing between multiple Chinese Foreign Ministry officials and The Jerusalem Post and two other media outlets, the Chinese explained that China has charted somewhat of a middle path when it comes to Iran – on the one hand, it has reduced oil purchases substantially, but, on the other hand, it continues to purchase enough oil to display independence from US sanctions and to maintain Iran’s economic stability.
The bottom line is Iran has just enough oil sales to resist US pressure to change the 2015 JCPOA. To date, Iran is no closer to a bomb, as it has only enriched uranium to around a 5% level. But around a month from now, it may carry out a threat to jump its uranium enrichment to the 20% level.
But what will happen if Iran enriches uranium to the 20% level? Will China keep buying Iranian oil?
The EU has recognized that getting to the 90% weaponized uranium level from the 20% level is substantially faster since uranium enrichment becomes exponentially more efficient as the enrichment level rises.
Former International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) official Olli Heinonen has implied in past interviews that, in some circumstances, jumping to the 20% enrichment level could eventually halve the time it would take for the Islamic republic to develop a nuclear weapon down to around six months. This is because, he said, getting to the 20% level means 85% of the enrichment work toward a nuclear weapon is done.
Because that is true, the EU has issued an implied threat that it might snap back full sanctions on Iran, including going to the UN, if Tehran goes as far as 20% enrichment.
The EU might take these stronger measures at that point, despite playing down Iran’s relatively more minor violations of nuclear restrictions to date.
Though no direct answer was given by Chinese officials during the recent meeting in Beijing about how it would respond in this scenario, beyond hoping negotiation could resolve this standoff and blaming Trump for leaving the 2015 nuclear deal, the impression given was that China would not join forces with the EU on snapping back sanctions and going to the UN at the 20% enrichment level point.The Chinese Foreign Ministry responded that what was expressed regarding China's position in the article was the writer's interpretation of meetings he had with the ministry. Further, the ministry stated, "the Chinese side opposes US unilateral sanctions and 'long-arm jurisdictions'. They are not helpful at all. The only way to resolve the issue is through dialogue and negotiation."
But there is another element that would start to roll if Iran jumped to the 20% enrichment level, which could change Chinese calculations.
The last time Iran was enriching at a 20% level was the last time Israel was both publicly discussing and seriously considering a preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Some gave the existence of that threat at least partial credit for getting the Islamic republic to make concessions in the 2015 deal.
Whatever Israel decides ultimately about whether to strike, there is no question that if Tehran jumped to 20% enrichment, Jerusalem would start loudly advertising that there was a clock progressively ticking down toward a potential preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Some give at least partial credit for China supporting UN sanctions in 2010 against Iran to its desire to avoid an Israeli strike at the time and all of the instability which that might create.
If most countries dislike instability, the Chinese loath it.
The Chinese will not answer this hypothetical scenario as they probably would prefer avoiding deciding with the hope that it won’t occur.
Whether China would press Iran into negotiating a new nuclear deal at such a point could likely determine whether Israel would strike or hold its fire so as to give a new round of negotiations a chance.