Late March this year the foreign ministers of China and Iran signed the “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership” in Tehran. According to a leaked draft, this 25-yearlong agreement would allow China to invest in many Iranian sectors, from banking, telecommunications, healthcare, railways, to information technology. In return, Beijing would secure a discounted supply of Iranian oil and easy access to Iranian islands and ports. In particular, the port of Jask, which sits outside the Strait of Hormuz, would provide a strategic gain for the so-called ‘String of Pearls’, a network of Chinese naval bases that stretches from Mainland China to the Horn of Africa. Additionally, the agreement would also allow enhanced military and intelligence cooperation between the two countries.
Following the announcement of the agreement, alarm bells rang on many Western media outlets. In a hardly surprising move, analysts were quick to label the two countries as the “New Axis of Evil”. It also raised qualms among the Iranian population, which fears that the deal would be a “sellout of Iran’s resources”, with some Iranians calling the agreement as “the new treaty of Turkmenchay”. This is an expression that describes an unjust settlement, and that recalls the treaty that forced Qajar Iran to cede large parts of its territory to the Russian empire in the 19th century.
This reaction, however, might be considered an exaggerate speculation. In fact, a more cautious viewsuggests that the deal could be more symbolic than we think. It may also resuscitate Iran from its diplomatic isolation – and give Tehran more bargaining power in renegotiating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal.
An analysis of the historical relations between the two countries can explain why prudence will be preferred over risk. China and Iran are two ancient cultures whose cooperation is rooted in time. In the 80s, Beijing and Tehran collaborated to shield themselves from the external pressure imposed by the US and the USSR, condemning external violation of sovereignty and interference from big powers. Over the past decades, the two have developed a Great Power – Middle Power Partnership, where Tehran has often been dependent on Beijing. However, it needs to be noted that China does not want to be involved in Iran’s disputes, and it is also well aware through experience that doing business with Tehran is no easy task. In 1987, Iran attacked a US tanker with a Chinese-made Silkworm anti-ship missile. To Beijing, using Chinese weapons against an American target was an irresponsible provocation. Furthermore, Iranian sanctions have also been a burden for China to bear. In January 2017, Iran tested a medium-range ballistic missile for the fifth time since the nuclear deal. In response, the United States imposed unilateral sanctions on 25 individuals and companies, among which there were two Chinese firms and three Chinese citizens. A risk-averse China would not want these past events to be repeated, which is why Beijing is carefully moving forward in its relationship with Iran. Thus, analysts should not reach quick conclusions and apply the “New Axis of Evil” label, because today’s Sino-Iranian relations are aiming for prudence and caution.
China is using these Comprehensive Strategic Partnerships as a regular instrument of foreign policy, which means that Iran is not its only partner in the region. Beijing has signed similar agreements, for example with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, both rivals of Iran and allies of the US. This is why it is also careful that its relations with Iran do not not jeopardize the balance of power in the Middle East – and, more importantly, the influence it has gained in the region.
Like in the 80s, Iran and China continue to collaborate today to ultimately balance American regional dominance. The US under the Trump Administration decided to withdraw from the JCPOA and introduce the policy of “maximum pressure on Iran”. However, this only forced Tehran to look towards East. Trump’s decision created a vacuum – a vacuum that China was eager to fill, to emerge as the new major player in the Middle East today.