By Alam Saleh and Zakieh Yazdanshenas
A recently leaked document suggests that China and Iran are entering a 25-year strategic partnership in trade, politics, culture, and security.
Cooperation between China and Middle Eastern countries is neither new nor recent. Yet what distinguishes this development from others is that both China and Iran have global and regional ambitions, both have confrontational relationships with the United States, and there is a security component to the agreement. The military aspect of the agreement concerns the United States, just as last year’s unprecedented Iran-China-Russia joint naval exercise in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Oman spooked Washington.
China’s growing influence in East Asia and Africa has challenged U.S. interests, and the Middle East is the next battlefield on which Beijing can challenge U.S. hegemony—this time through Iran. This is particularly important since the agreement and its implications go beyond the economic sphere and bilateral relations: It operates at the internal, regional, and global level.
Internally, the agreement can be an economic lifeline for Iran, saving its sanctions-hit, cash-strapped economy by ensuring the sale of its oil and gas to China. In addition, Iran will be able to use its strategic ties with China as a bargaining chip in any possible future negotiations with the West by taking advantage of its ability to expand China’s footprint in the Persian Gulf.
While there are only three months left before the 2020 U.S. presidential election, closer scrutiny of the new Iran-China strategic partnership could jeopardize the possibility of a Republican victory. That’s because the China-Iran strategic partnership proves that the Trump administration’s maximum pressure strategy has been a failure; not only did it fail to restrain Iran and change its regional behavior, but it pushed Tehran into the arms of Beijing.
In the long term, Iran’s strategic proximity to China implies that Tehran is adapting the so-called “Look East” policy in order to boost its regional and military power and to defy and undermine U.S. power in the Persian Gulf region.
For China, the pact can help guarantee its energy security. The Persian Gulf supplies more than half of China’s energy needs. Thus, securing freedom of navigation through the Persian Gulf is of great importance for China. Saudi Arabia, a close U.S. ally, has now become the top supplier of crude oil to China, as Chinese imports from the kingdom in May set a new record of 2.16 million barrels per day. This dependence is at odds with China’s general policy of diversifying its energy sources and not being reliant on one supplier. (China’s other Arab oil suppliers in the Persian Gulf region have close security ties with the United States.)
China fears that as the trade war between the two countries intensifies, the United States may put pressure on those countries not to supply Beijing with the energy it needs. A comprehensive strategic partnership with Iran is both a hedge and an insurance policy; it can provide China with a guaranteed and discounted source of energy.
Chinese-Iranian ties will inevitably reshape the political landscape of the region in favor of Iran and China, further undermining U.S. influence. Indeed, the agreement allows China to play a greater role in one of the most important regions in the world. The strategic landscape has shifted since the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. In the new regional order, transnational identities based on religious and sectarian divisions spread and changed the essence of power dynamics.
These changes, as well as U.S. troop withdrawals and the unrest of the Arab Spring, provided an opportunity for middle powers like Iran to fill the gaps and to boost their regional power. Simultaneously, since Xi Jinping assumed power in 2012, the Chinese government has expressed a stronger desire to make China a world power and to play a more active role in other regions. This ambition manifested itself in introducing the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which highlighted the strategic importance of the Middle East.
China grasps Iran’s position and importance as a regional power in the new Middle East. Regional developments in recent years have consolidated Iran’s influence. Unlike the United States, China has adopted an apolitical development-oriented approach to the region, utilizing Iran’s regional power to expand economic relations with nearby countries and establish security in the region through what it calls developmental peace—rather than the Western notion of democratic peace. It’s an approach that authoritarian states in the Middle East tend to welcome.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran in 2018, and the subsequent introduction of the maximum pressure policy, was the last effort by the U.S. government to halt Iran’s growing influence in the region. Although this policy has hit Iran’s economy hard, it has not been able to change the country’s ambitious regional and military policies yet. As such, the newfound strategic cooperation between China and Iran will further undermine U.S. leverage, paving the way for China to play a more active role in the Middle East.
The Chinese-Iranian strategic partnership will also impact neighboring regions, including South Asia. In 2016, India and Iran signed an agreement to invest in Iran’s strategic Chabahar Port and to construct the railway connecting the southeastern port city of Chabahar to the eastern city of Zahedan and to link India to landlocked Afghanistan and Central Asia. Iran now accuses India of delaying its investments under U.S. pressure and has dismissed India from the project.
While Iranian officials have refused to link India’s removal from Chabahar-Zahedan project to the new 25-year deal with China, it seems that India’s close ties to Washington led to this decision. Replacing India with China in such a strategic project will alter the balance of power in South Asia to the detriment of New Delhi.
China now has the chance to connect Chabahar Port to Gwadar in Pakistan, which is a critical hub in the BRI program. Regardless of what Washington thinks, the new China-Iran relationship will ultimately undermine India’s interests in the region, particularly if Pakistan gets on board. The implementation of Iran’s proposal to expand the existing China-Pakistan Economic Corridor along northern, western, and southern axes and link Gwadar Port in Pakistan to Chabahar and then to Europe and to Central Asia through Iran by a rail network is now more probable. If that plan proceeds, the golden ring consisting of China, Pakistan, Iran, Russia, and Turkey will turn into the centerpiece of BRI, linking China to Iran and onward to Central Asia, the Caspian Sea, and to the Mediterranean Sea through Iraq and Syria.
On July 16, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced that Jask Port would become the country’s main oil loading point. By placing a greater focus on the development of the two strategic ports of Jask and Chabahar, Iran is attempting to shift its geostrategic focus from the Persian Gulf to the Gulf of Oman. This would allow Tehran to avoid the tense Persian Gulf region, reduces the journey distance for oil tankers shipping Iranian oil, and also enables Tehran to close the Strait of Hormuz when needed.
The bilateral agreement provides China with an extraordinary opportunity to participate in the development of this port. China will be able to add Jask to its network of strategic hubs in the region. According to this plan, regional industrial parks developed by Chinese companies in some Persian Gulf countries will link up to ports where China has a strong presence. This interconnected network of industrial parks and ports can further challenge the United States’ dominant position in the region surrounding the strategically vital Strait of Hormuz.
A strategic partnership between Iran and China will also affect the great-power rivalry between the United States and China. While China remains the largest trading partner of the United States and there are still extensive bilateral relations between the two global powers, their competition has intensified in various fields to the point that many observers argue the world is entering a new cold war. Given the geopolitical and economic importance of the Middle East, the deal with Iran gives China yet another perch from which it can challenge U.S. power.
Meanwhile, in addition to ensuring its survival, Tehran is going to take advantage of ties with Beijing to consolidate its regional position. Last but not least, while the United States has been benefiting from rivalry and division in the region, Chinese-Iranian partnership could eventually reshape the region’s security landscape by promoting stability through the Chinese approach of developmental peace.
Alam Saleh is a lecturer in Iranian studies at Australian National University’s Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies. He is also a council member of the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies. Follow him at @alamsaleh1.
Zakiyeh Yazdanshenas is a research fellow at the Center for Middle East Strategic Studies. Her expertise mainly focuses on great-power rivalries in the Middle East. Follow her at @YzdZakiyeh.