China’s stance over Iran, however, is far from clear-cut. It finds itself in a pivotal but acutely uncomfortable position. The simplistic old platitudes in which its foreign policy is couched cannot do justice to the complexity of the calculations it has to make. Most of its foreign-policy principles, says Minxin Pei of Claremont McKenna College in California, are “either obsolete or under pressure”, and Iran is an example of their irrelevance.
They do seem nevertheless to provide intellectual cover for a self-interested policy. (That is the mark of what diplomats call “good principles”.) “Energy security” has long been a priority for Chinese diplomacy. It has underpinned its friendships with other regimes excoriated in the West: pre-division Sudan, for example, or Myanmar’s junta before it donned civilian clothing and gave charm a chance. In Iran, China has longstanding commercial relationships and an important—and cheap—energy supplier. Naturally it wants to avoid antagonising a reliable old friend.