Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney was quick to respond to the International Atomic Energy Agency's Nov. 8 report outlining the alleged weaponization of Iran's nuclear program, calling for crippling sanctions, increased economic and political pressure and, if necessary, military intervention.
The former governor of Massachusetts has also been vocal in his criticism of China for its international trade practices and currency manipulation. Romney spoke on both issues during the Saturday, Nov. 12, televised Republican presidential candidate debate but has yet to make the critical connection between the two.
The IAEA's report was met with a seemingly unanimous call from U.N. member states to impose harsh new economic sanctions on Iran. China, however, which boasts the world's second largest economy, dismissed the idea, instead suggesting that "dialogue and cooperation" with Iran would produce the best results. China has correctly been accused by the U.S. and its European allies of undermining international efforts to subdue Iran's nuclear program by circumventing sanctions and increasing trade with the country.
Although Romney is on the record for supporting military intervention in Iran as a last resort, a strategy whose human, economic and political toll can dwarf the Iraq and Afghan wars, his call for immediate sanctions against Iran shows good judgment. Romney must now draft a policy that would pressure China to fall in line with the rest of the world so that sanctions against Iran work.
The military option remains on the table for Romney and others because sanctions have failed to dissuade the Iranian regime in the past. If China were to halt, or even limit trade on targeted goods with Iran, the effect would be unprecedented. China's trade with Iran accounts for nearly 18 percent of Iran's total commerce and is second only to that of the entire 27-member European Union.
Since 2001, Chinese exports to Iran have increased 16 fold, to $12.2 billion, while Iranian exports to China in 2010, primarily crude oil, amounted to $16.5 billion, according to a new report by the Atlantic Council's Iran Task Force. For China, which operates more than 100 state-owned enterprises in Iran, sanctions are a bonanza: fewer European and U.S. investors means less competition for its companies in Iran and more access to Iranian oil.
The question remains: how do we convince China to stop doing business with Iran? The U.N. has issued four rounds of sanctions against Iran in recent years, to which China has reluctantly agreed. However, China holds veto power on the U.N. Security Council and would kill any future resolutions that directly limit its trade with Iran. In October, the U.S. Senate passed a bill aimed at reprimanding China for holding down the value of its currency by imposing stiff tariffs on Chinese imports to the United States. This bill received Romney's support, however, it stalled in the Republican-led House and seems unlikely to make it out of committee.
If the bill were re-written to ask China not only to stop manipulating its currency, but to stop skirting U.N. sanctions against Iran and continued to receive Romney's support, its chances of passing would vastly improve.
If Romney wants to become the 45th president of the United States, he needs to show Americans that he has a specific plan for dealing with Iran's nuclear program that stops short of military strikes. Strikes would result in the death of thousands of innocent civilians in the vicinity of Iran's nuclear facilities and would almost certainly plunge the United States military into another catastrophic war.
Making sanctions effective by pressuring China to play ball would most likely bring about the solution everyone is looking for. By making the China-Iran connection, Romney would establish himself as the presidential candidate most prepared to handle foreign policy and trade issues.
Khosrow B. Semnani is the founder of Omid for Iran, an Iranian-American human and civil rights group headquartered in Salt Lake City.