The United States is caught in a cleft stick on Iran with China making a bold approach to develop its relations with the Islamic country with a view to take on the influence of the West in western Asia. But there is a twist in the tale. The joint statement by Chinese President Xi Jinping and visiting Iranian counterpart Ebrahim Raisi clearly points to that. Both leaders call for lifting of western, read American, sanctions on Iran as an integral part of the stalled international agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme. Xi Jinping, riding high on the success of Raisi’s visit, promptly accepted an invitation to visit Iran. He was Teheran last in 2016.
Both leaders ask for the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCOPA), popularly known as the Iran nuclear deal, of 2015, under which Iran agreed with several countries, including the United States, to curb its nuclear programme in return for economic sanctions relief. In 2018, then US President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the deal and ordered the reimposition of US sanctions on Iran.
Xi did not hide behind diplomatese as he stated that China always views Iran from a “strategic perspective”. He says no matter how the international and regional situation changes, China will unswervingly develop friendly cooperation with Iran, push for new development of the China-Iran comprehensive strategic partnership, and play a positive role in world peace and human progress. Xi supports Iran in resisting unilateralism and bullying, and opposes external forces interfering in Iran’s internal affairs and undermining Iran’s security and stability.
“China is willing to continue cooperation with Iran under the Belt and Road Initiative to promote connectivity and expand people-to-people exchanges,” Xi added. Raisi echoed similar sentiments: “Iran firmly supports and will actively participate in the Belt and Road Initiative, the Global Development Initiative and the Global Security Initiative proposed by China… Iran firmly supports China in safeguarding its sovereignty and territorial integrity. On the JCOPA, Xi said China will continue to take a constructive part in the negotiations on resuming the nuclear deal, support Iran in safeguarding its legitimate rights and interests, and work for an early and proper settlement of the Iranian nuclear issue.
Raisi reciprocated the sentiment while launching a veiled criticism of the US when he noted that both Iran and China are firmly opposed to unilateralism and hegemonism, as well as to external interference in internal affairs, Raisi said Iran firmly supports China in safeguarding its sovereignty and territorial integrity. Raisi said Iran is willing to strengthen communication with China on international and regional affairs, maintain good cooperation on multilateral occasions such as the SCO, jointly safeguard international fairness and justice, and maintain regional and world peace and security.
The Xi-Raisi meeting has once again raised spectre of a China-Iran alliance that the West says will destabilize the region and threats American interests. Of late, Chinese interest in Iran has grown exponentially. Apart from Iran being the largest trading partner, China has increased Iranian oil imports while offering rhetorical support to Iran vis a vis the American sanctions. China is unfolding its Iran strategy step by step. First, it has systematically increased trade relations with that country. Thereafter, it focused on the implementation of the 25-Year Iran-China Strategic Cooperation Agreement. Finally, China wants to edge out the US as Iran’s partner in the so-called nuclear deal.
However, as The Diplomat points out in a year-old article, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi may be forced to “Look East” in the wake of the US withdrawal from the JCPOA, but the Chinese government continues to look in many directions at once. China has substantial relations with Saudi Arabia, Israel, and a number of other Iranian neighbors and regional rivals. They are also not entirely out of step with the US position on Iranian nuclear weapons, and their contributions to the negotiations in Vienna reflects this. China sees Iran as just one part of a larger strategy of global engagement and economic development and is not putting all of its eggs into one basket.
That is probably the reason why despite increased Iranian oil imports, Chinese investments have not flooded Iran. The only thing of importance that has come to pass is Iran’s accession to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a Chinese-led international organization dedicated to advancing the economic, political, and cultural interests of all member states. However, the SCO is a largely toothless organization that mainly provides a platform for debate, rather than a mechanism for implementing policy. Iran’s membership, which is not yet finalized, was paired with the admission of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Qatar as “dialogue partners,” a further sign that China seeks to balance Iran’s interests with concessions to its rivals.
China understands it walks on the edge in west Asia. It has deeper relations with other countries of the region, like Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Turkey, and the Gulf Cooperation Council, while the ties of Iran are only blossoming now. China will do nothing that would endanger its relations with its countries because of its growing friendship with Iran. It feels this balancing act is a kind of proof of its deeper involvement in the politics of the region. For instance, there were reports last year of China helping Saudi Arabia to develop its own missile production programme even though the latter is sold maximum arms by the Americans. But with China also friendly with Iran can mean the latter hesitating before carrying out any future drone strikes in Saudi Arabia.
The Xi-Raisi statement cannot be taken to mean China blindly backs Iran because it needs to take on the US at any cost. Rather, China has the stand that the West should not subject Iran to any kind of sanctions and it should have access to nuclear energy like anyone else. At the same time, China is against proliferation of nuclear weapons – a policy that is not easy for Iran to digest. In all likeliness, China would want to overtly show how efficiently is has entered West Asia and sits comfortably in the camp in Teheran the US vacated. At the same time, it must internally be pressurising Iran to give up its intransigence over its nuclear programme and come back to the negotiating table—if that happens, China thinks it will be its leverage against the US at the global nuclear disarmament negotiations.
Western China watchers suggest that China’s support to Iran comes less out of concern for Iran’s nuclear motivations, but rather as a way of resolving tensions between Iran and the United States, in order to remove the sanctions against Iran. Sanctions are the main impediment to implementing the 25-Year Iran-China Agreement and improving economic ties between the two countries.