By Iran Review
By Mohsen Shariatinia*
China’s Defense Minister General Chang Wanquan paid an official visit to Iran recently at a time that international politics is surrounded by ambiguities more than any time before during the past two decades and under conditions when some analysts maintain that the West has reached the finish line.
Americans have held an election, which has turned into a problem for other countries, including Iran and China. During his Iran visit, General Wanquan, China’s minister of defense, met and conferred with his Iranian counterpart, Brigadier General Hossein Dehqan, and their negotiations led to the signing of a defense and military agreement between the two countries.
However, under present conditions, the issue, which is considered as more important than the details of the trip and the agreement reached during it, is the future outlook for the strategic triangle among Iran, China and the United States. Relations between Iran and China are both old and new. During more than four decades, which have passed since establishment of new relations between the two countries, the United States has been playing a key role in shaping those relations. In other words, the modern ties between Iran and China have been always trilateral, not bilateral.
Before the Islamic Revolution, the United States acted as a catalyst and played a key role in shaping and early strengthening of these relations. Following the revolution and especially during the past decade, the United States has played multiple roles in this regard, the most important of which has been aimed at restricting these relations and creating important impediments on the way of their development, especially in all fields that would go beyond exporting “Chinese goods” to Iran.
Following the conclusion of Iran’s nuclear deal with the P5+1 group of countries, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), this triangle underwent some change. As a result, during the past year, the strategic pressure exerted by the United States on Iran’s relations with China has decreased and Iran has been treading the path toward desecuritization.
Apart from that and in a rare course of events, Iran, China, and the United States were expected to rebuild Iran’s Arak nuclear reactor in cooperation with one another, though this project is still far from the beginning. This is why the highest ranking Chinese official traveled to Iran immediately after signing of the JCPOA and following a hiatus of 14 years and even talked about the necessity of promoting the strategic partnership between Tehran and Beijing. In other words, during the post-JCPOA era, gradual signs have emerged showing that interactions between Iran and China are becoming bilateral and returning to normal track.
However, now and a relatively short while after implementation of the JCPOA started, the third side of this triangle has changed and this change has posed a key question as to the future outlook for interactions between Iran and China. In the United States, a man has been elected as president whose fame, more than anything else, is owned to his odd remarks and is so unaware and defiant of the international politics that – as put by the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker – he thinks Belgium is a village somewhere in Europe! Iran and China have been two main targets of his harsh remarks.
On the one hand, he has threatened that he will rip the JCPOA, while on the other hand, he has accused China of trade invasion against the United States, noting that his administration will consider 45-percent tariffs on China’s exports to the United States, which amount to about 500 billion dollars a year.
Of course, it goes without saying that the exigencies of election rhetoric in a clamorous society like that of the United States are totally different from exigencies of governing the same society. Another point is that in the United States, the ruling system evidently outdoes any person, though some people like the former US secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, have noted that the election win of president-elect, Donald Trump, would mean the collapse of the social contract in America. However, if Trump makes practical efforts to put in action even part of his harsh promises, the United States will once more enter the context of relations between Iran and China and will be potentially able to cause some form of “back to the future” in these relations. The question is how will China react if Trump starts by focusing on the JCPOA?
It is clear that China will find itself at a difficult crossroads where it will have to choose between interests and responsibility and it is very difficult to predict how it will behave under these conditions. If Trump does not rip the JCPOA, but try to once more securitize the Iran issue and define Iran within such conceptual frameworks as the so-called Axis of Evil and the likes of that, interactions between Iran and China will probably slow down and become difficult and complicated.
What would happen to planned cooperation among Iran, China and the United States for the reconstruction of Iran’s Arak nuclear reactor under such hypothetical future conditions? Another scenario, however, which can be thought of is one in which foolhardiness (as an indispensable part of politics) would cause the United States’ foreign policy to go astray and this would provide such reformist countries as Iran and China with unprecedented opportunities across the world. On the other hand, the combination of foolhardiness and power would make international politics more prone to catastrophe than any time before. If foolhardiness becomes a feature of the center of the world’s power, its catastrophic effects may afflict Iran and China before and more than others.
In short, relations between Iran and China are on the verge of a profound paradigmatic alteration as a result of this profoundly vague change in the United States. At present, both countries have to hope for the best and plan for the worst. What is clear now is that not only Iran and China, but also the rest of 194 world countries are studying and speculating about this rare phenomenon in international politics; a phenomenon, which takes place but once in several decades.
* Mohsen Shariatinia
Assistant Professor, Shahid Beheshti University