Nuclear Deal Prelude To Expanded Ties between Iran And China


By Behzad Shahandeh*

It seems that six international powers that are involved in nuclear talks with Iran are overcoming oppositions and obstructionist efforts of certain regional lobbies. At least, new remarks made by heads of those states that are members of the United Nations Security Council show that a historical consensus over a nuclear deal with Iran is in the offing. Iran’s major partner in Asia, that is China, is meanwhile playing a prominent role in this regard. In various statements, Chinese officials have expressed concern about efforts made by those people who are challenging a possible deal with Iran, noting that this historical opportunity should not be put at jeopardy through such efforts. This approach is mostly a result of China’s understanding of Iran’s important position, especially in the Middle East region. Beijing, therefore, believes that Iran and the Middle East region constitute a sensitive region which is still making its way up through the ranks of international system.

In fact, the increasing political weight and importance of Iran has coincided with China’s plan to boost its global influence. China has already gone through three decades of economic reconstruction with total success. According to figures released by the International Monetary Fund in December 2014, the country has turned into the world’s biggest economic powerhouse with a gross domestic product (GDP) of 17.6 trillion dollars, which is a good criterion for measuring purchasing power of its people. Therefore, China is willing to strengthen its global standing in proportion to this economic capacity. It goes without saying that implementation of this strategy by Beijing will require China to have extended relations with such countries as Iran, which is among major developing states. This point has been taken into account by the Chinese President Xi Jinping when formulating his international strategy. He has emphasized that China gives special priority to interaction with major developing countries, including Brazil, South Africa, Mexico, and Iran.

China’s strategy to open new avenues for cooperation with Iran has prompted leaders in Beijing to do their best in order for a final nuclear deal to be signed with Iran as soon as possible. All evidence points to the fact that Beijing has already made the most of the interim deal that was signed between Iran and the P5+1 countries in the Swiss city of Geneva last November. As a result of the interim deal, the volume of China’s trade with Iran has hit USD 52 billion, which has been 10 percent higher than a year before. Of course, it should be noted that the Iranian side has been likewise able to create a better balance in bilateral relations. A prominent example was the export of USD 8.5 billion worth of petrochemical products and USD 8 billion of non-oil goods by Iran to China. In the new phase of bilateral cooperation, Tehran and Beijing have extended their cooperation to the important area of defense and China is now considering Iran a strategic partner. In September 2014, the two countries staged their first naval maneuver in the Persian Gulf. Also, a major turning point in the two countries relations at international level came about during a trip to China by Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani in which the two countries discussed Iran’s accession to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. During those talks, Beijing also indicated its willingness to help Iran join the organization as a permanent member. According to present regulations of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, countries that are under UN sanctions cannot become permanent members. Various meetings and negotiations on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit encouraged China to double its efforts to remove the obstacle of international sanctions against Iran.

Xi, the leader of the People’s Republic of China, has been chosen to this post in early 2013 and will stay in office up to 2023, and has considered a major part for Iran in the “New Silk Road” which is a major project launched by Beijing at the cost of USD 40 billion. He is the first head of state in China, who has not been appointed by Mao Zedong or Deng Xiaoping and is also considered the most powerful Chinese leader after Deng. Xi has already proven that he is somehow distancing from conservative policies of Deng’s main disciples. The previous generation of Chinese leaders, which was influenced by the ideas of Deng Xiaoping, believed that China should hide its true power in order not to make other countries sensitive. However, the new Chinese president believes that Beijing should play a high-profile role in international affairs. For this reason, he seeks an international share and presence for China that could be proportionate to the country’s huge economic might. Of course, Xi’s policies are by no means reckless or inconsiderate because China’s powerful presence in international scene is, first of all, aimed at protecting and supporting the country’s increasing economic power. From this viewpoint, China are not an exception in international relations. Americans also first gave priority to protecting their economic interest in the world. When they turned into a top economic power, and in fact, the world’s biggest economic power, at the end of the 19th century, they went through a process which took 80 years until the end of the World War II and turned the United States into a full-fledged global superpower. Given new technologies that are now available to China, the country is supposed to go through the same process in a shorter period of time.

Xi is expected to pay his first official visit to Iran in May 2015. He will be the first Chinese president to take a trip to Iran after the lapse of 13 years. Chinese president is, at the same time, head of China Communist Party’s Politburo with 87,000 members and is also commander in chief of the China’s military forces. Jiang Zemin, was the last Chinese president to pay an official visit to Iran in 2002, which Iran’s president was Mohammad Khatami.

His successor, Hu Jintao, who was China’s president from 2003 to 2013, never visited Iran, though he traveled to Saudi Arabia twice. Therefore, now that achievement of a final nuclear deal seems to be more likely than ever before, world powers that are permanent members of the United Nations Security Council are taking new steps to expand their ties with Iran. In past years and due to various reasons, including vast trade relations with the United States, China was just an onlooker when sanctions were imposed on Iran and even took sides with countries that imposed those sanctions. Now, due to its increasing trade share in the world, China has more maneuvering power compared to the past in its relations with the United States. Therefore, Beijing has been opening a new chapter in its cooperation with Tehran and even if nuclear talks faced a deadlock, China would not be possible to take sides with countries that impose sanctions on Iran anymore. Meanwhile, the agreements and contracts that this major Asian power has signed with Iran have been important steps in undermining and eroding the effect of international sanctions against Iran.

* Behzad Shahandeh
Professor of East Asia Studies at University of Tehran

Iran Review

Iran Review is a Tehran-based site that is independent, non-governmental and non-partisan and representing scientific and professional approaches towards Iran’s political, economic, social, religious, and cultural affairs, its foreign policy, and regional and international issues within the framework of analysis and articles.

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