The US and Iran Are Locked in a Game of Chicken

In the Persian Gulf, 2012 was ushered in to the sounds of weaponry during Iran’s military exercises. Earlier in 2011, tensions spiraled as the U.S. and Iran took opposing stances. America’s stance told Iran: “If you don’t give up your nuclear arsenal, war will not be far off.” Iran’s response was to escalate the scale of their military exercises, telling the U.S.: “If you use force, there will be a life-and-death struggle.”

These two countries are locked in a dangerous game of brinkmanship (similar to the U.S.-Soviet Cold War game of chicken) which is a test of who will finally compromise or concede. Iran’s troops and U.S. aircraft carriers are the pawns in this game, but as the stakes increase, the Persian Gulf’s fragile peace is tested.

America is trying to push forward sanctions against Iran through the U.N., hoping to use economic sanctions to force Iran to give up its nuclear aspirations and suppress its idea of dominating the Persian Gulf. In 2012 America announced it would levy unilateral sanctions against Iran, and on the last day of 2011 Obama passed a bill for such sanctions. Compared with earlier attempts, this one could severely damage a critical part of Iran’s economy — oil exports. This time, the European Union has agreed in principle with this plan against Iran; only the time frame for such sanctions has not yet been finalized. If the two great economies of the U.S. and the E.U., plus U.S. allies in Asia, levy sanctions against Iran, this could have a severe impact on Iran’s economy.

For America and its allies, what kind of threat is Iran? Asymmetrical warfare is Iran’s trump card. The TV screens will show Iran’s boats being "harassed," while the U.S.’ large battleships are effectively blocked from the Strait of Hormuz by mines. In addition, Iran’s missiles can’t reach the U.S., but they can hit countries along the Persian Gulf. And if this doesn’t paralyze the international oil market, it can at least create turbulence.

American and Iran are two countries that are unwillingly but irrevocably committed. Obama’s administration wants to revise its foreign strategy; to launch a war against Iran during an election year would be self-defeating. And in the past decade, the U.S. has relied too heavily upon violent force and has ignored consulting others and effects upon its prestige, so that it is often seen as a big bully. For Iran, democracy and theocracy are two incompatible forms of government; Ahmadinejad and Khamenei are aware they are playing with fire, and the bottom line is to avoid "self-immolation." It’s not easy for the U.S. as a superpower or Iran as a country with an imperial history of thousands of years to discredit each other. Instead, both sides need a way to escape this game of chicken.

China in the Role of Mediator

While Iran is holding the Persian Gulf "hostage," the fifth “World Future Energy Summit” is to be held in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, to explore the development of renewable energy and creating a more equitable global energy order, which is critical to the global political economy. In the short and medium term, oil and natural gas, as representatives of traditional non-renewable energy sources are still crucial to the world’s infrastructure for industrialization. As a result, no industrialized nations can ignore Iran’s energy supply.

China’s strategic interests lie in maintaining the stability of the Persian Gulf region. China and the Persian Gulf have close economic and trade ties, especially in the form of energy cooperation. Chinese oil companies are not only in Iran, but also Saudi Arabia. Thus to maintain the stability of the Persian Gulf region is in China’s national interests. And between Iran and the U.S., China can maintain a mediator status.

China is the most suited to this role. For Russia, the oil embargo and resulting soaring oil prices will be beneficial to Russian interests because it is a country dependent on energy exports. For the E.U., including Britain, France, Germany and other major powers that have urged sanctions against Iran, there is little room to maneuver. Japan and South Korea as allies of the U.S. have already joined the camp of sanctions. When Iran and the United States refuse to cooperate, China needs to bring them a decent step closer to the negotiating table, even if it is to save face for both sides.

In international diplomacy, agenda setting and crisis management are the embodiment of how great power diplomacy can be a powerful springboard to enhance a nation’s image. As the U.S. postpones military exercises and Iran uses propaganda rhetoric, they need a more formal channel of communication, and China can help. In the early 20th century, Theodore Roosevelt's involvement in the Russo-Japanese war framed the distribution of world powers, so why can’t China do the same today?