By Samuel M. Hickey
Since the signing of a 25-year trade and military partnership between Iran and China in early 2020, there has been great speculation about the “selling off” of Iran to China. And while there has been further prediction that China’s increasing diplomatic efforts in the Middle East signal an intention to replace the United States as the next regional hegemon, its current involvement in ongoing talks to revive the Iran nuclear deal illustrates the limits of its engagement.
While China is now the top trading partner for many countries in the Middle East, it has been careful not to be drawn into long-running regional disputes. More specifically, Beijing is balancing its relations with Egypt, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. It is unlikely that China seeks to take on the role of peacemaker because that would go against the “noninterference policy” it propagates. However, it appears China is willing to play a constructive role to prevent a crisis.
Eight rounds of talks to revive the Iran nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with diplomats from China, France, Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom—and the United States indirectly—have finally reached the “stage of details, the most difficult part of the negotiations.” While China has often sided with the Iranian position that “The US, as the culprit of the Iranian nuclear crisis, should naturally remove all illegal unilateral sanctions on Iran,” it is incentivized to get U.S. sanctions on Iran lifted to ensure diversification of its energy portfolio.
China has accumulated leverage over the Iranian negotiation position as it is the only country at the table in Vienna that was willing to buck U.S. unilateral sanctions, risking being cut off from the U.S. economy. China continues to buy Iranian oil—albeit at a substantially reduced amount and price—to oppose what it believes is a world order designed to preserve western dominance, throwing the beleaguered Iranian economy a lifeline. Consequently, this means that should talks fail to revive the JCPOA, China would hold the screwdriver to tighten global economic pressure on Iran since much of the United States’ unilateral pressure has been exhausted.
At that point, China’s strategic and economic interests would be in conflict.
To avoid this conflict, China has taken a much more active role in the negotiations to revive the JCPOA precisely to avoid another crisis in the Middle East, which would be disastrous for its economic interests. China’s chief negotiator has even pressed his Iranian counterpart to “significantly streamline” Iran’s proposals in order to speed up the pace of negotiations.
This position appears to run counter to the countless headlines predicting a quantum leap in Sino-Iranian relations stemming from the 25-year comprehensive cooperation agreement that just recently entered the implementation stage. Rather than a China-Iran alliance, the much-ballyhooed agreement with China—which many news outlets erroneously reported contained plans to invest $400 billion in Iran—also shows that there are limits to Iranian desires for a stronger relationship with China.
The arrangement is an extension of the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP) China and Iran signed in 2016. CSPs are a model framework China routinely uses to structure its bilateral relations, and China has signed similar pacts with Iraq and Saudi Arabia already.
However, news of the 25-year agreement with China did not sit well with many of Iran’s political figures either. There has been a domestic backlash over the lack of transparency as an 18-page leaked draft document provided few specifics. Speculation spiked with possible deals ranging from the provision of 5G communications technology to unsubstantiated claims of an agreement to set up a Chinese military base on the Persian Gulf. In an attempt to relieve some of the pressure, the then-foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that the agreement was “neither a deal nor a treaty” but merely “a roadmap,” which does not require ratification by the parliament.
Clearly, no such alliance is in the offing as the deal has steered clear of Iran’s parliament.
It is distinctly not in China’s interest for any new nuclear weapon states to crop up, which aligns its interests with the United States and the non-proliferation regime. However, maintaining a little ambiguity in its non-proliferation policy allows Beijing to undermine U.S. strategy in the Middle East while continuing to profit off of U.S. security commitments in the Persian Gulf.
China is not trying to upend the system; rather, it is working within it. There does not appear to be an appetite to replace the United States because undermining it instead is much cheaper. Within this context, Beijing is a supporter of regional peace for the financial incentives.