FPI Bulletin: China-Iran Strategic Partnership Undermines Nuclear Talks

April 27, 2015

Tehran’s April 14 statement that Beijing plans to build new nuclear power plants in Iran reflects a shared strategic objective: the subversion of U.S. interests in the Middle East. Yet the announcement, which closely follows the proposed nuclear framework agreement reached on April 2, should hardly come as a surprise. Since the 1980s, China and Iran have developed a robust military, economic and diplomatic partnership aimed at countering U.S. leadership and accelerating their own rise as regional hegemons.
A History of Cooperation
Both China and Iran view themselves as great civilizations that have experienced devastating humiliation at the hands of Western imperialism, which now amounts to the main stumbling block to the restoration of their former glory. According to a RAND Corporation study, China views “its relationship with Iran as a way to increase its influence in a geostrategically important region dominated by the United States.” Iran, for its part, “views China as an emerging economic, political, and military power that can offset U.S. power globally and in the Middle East specifically.”
Thus, starting in the 1980s, Beijing played a key role in modernizing Iran’s military and developing its nuclear program. Over the years, China has supplied Iran with anti-ship cruise missiles, surface-to-air missiles, combat aircraft, fast attack patrol vessels, and technology to produce ballistic missiles and chemical weapons.
China also constitutes Iran’s largest trading partner, with Tehran’s energy supply, the world’s fourth largest and the lifeblood of Iran’s economy, lying at the heart of their economic relationship. Iran also serves as Beijing’s third largest crude oil supplier — a significant rank in light of China’s status as the world’s largest energy consumer. In 2014, trade between the allies reached $52 billion, up from $40 billion the year before and only $1 billion in 2000.
At the same time, Beijing has played a double game with respect to international sanctions on Iran. While the regime grudgingly deviated from past opposition to Iran sanctions by voting in favor of U.N. Security Council sanctions resolutions, it has repeatedly circumvented them, as well as U.S. and European Union penalties. Such a posture has enabled China to retain its trade partnership both with Iran and the United States, and to avoid international censure as one of the lone outliers in the global sanctions campaign.
In another dramatic indication of the partnership’s depth, China’s support for Tehran remained unshaken despite the massive protests and brutal violence that followed the disputed Iranian elections in June 2009. In fact, Beijing became one of the few capitals in the world to actually congratulate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Islamist regime’s anointed candidate. “We are quite confident,” said then-President Hu Jintao, “that friendly and profound economic relations between the two countries should continue forever.”
Strengthening the Partnership
In recent years, as Iranian nuclear negotiations have unfolded, Iran-China relations have reached an unprecedented scale, marked by a flurry of increased military, economic, and diplomatic cooperation.
In March 2013, two Iranian ships docked at a Chinese port with a “message of peace and friendship to China and other East Asian countries,” according to Iranian state media. In a sign of Tehran’s broader ambitions, the commander of Iran’s Navy, Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari, used the occasion to announce that Iran’s “presence in the Pacific Ocean is a prelude to [Iran’s] presence in the Atlantic Ocean,” and that it would seek a greater presence in international waters.
In February 2014, Iran and China signed an agreement aimed at doubling bilateral trade over the course of three years, including the industrial, oil, gas, petrochemical, mining, banking, transportation, energy, communications, and information technology sectors.
In May 2014, the two countries agreed to strengthen defense ties following a meeting between Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan and his Iranian counterpart, Hossein Dehqani, in Beijing. “Given Iran and China’s common views over many important political-security, regional and international issues, Beijing assumes Tehran as its strategic partner,” said Wanquan. In a separate meeting later that month, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged to further enhance ties in multiple arenas, including trade, energy, transportation infrastructure, and counterterrorism.
In September 2014, for the first time in history, Chinese warships docked at an Iranian port to participate in joint naval exercises, which a Chinese Navy commander, Rear Admiral Huang Xinjian, said would “encourage the constant advancement of friendly cooperation between our two countries’ navies.”
A month later, the commander of Iran’s Navy, Rear Admiral Sayyari, visited China for the first time. China-Iran ties have “continued healthy development,” Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan told him during the visit, and proceeded to call for further military cooperation. Later in the month, Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, traveled to Beijing for a conference on Afghanistan, where he announced, according to Iranian state media, that Tehran “attached prime importance to cooperation with China in mutual, regional and international arenas.”
In November 2014, China’s domestic security chief, Meng Jianzhu, visited Tehran to discuss greater cooperation in counterterrorism efforts against Sunni extremists in China’s far western region of Xinjiang. According to a statement by China’s foreign ministry, “Both sides reached important consensus on expanding and deepening China-Iran bilateral ties, especially when exchanging views on pushing law-enforcement and security cooperation.”
Nuclear Implications
Last week, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Chinese President Xi Jinping met in Jakarta, where Xi noted that Beijing “attaches high importance to the further strengthening of the two nations and governments’ bonds and friendship.” Xi also reportedly told Rouhani that Beijing seeks “a fair, balanced, mutually beneficial and win-win comprehensive [nuclear] agreement as soon as possible.”
Xi failed to offer specifics, but the context of his remarks left little room for doubt concerning his sympathies for Iran’s position in nuclear negotiations. After all, Beijing’s support for Tehran, both past and present, already demonstrated that China considered the bilateral relationship of greater strategic import than preventing Tehran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon. For precisely this reason, the United States should not expect Beijing to play a constructive role in reaching or enforcing a final agreement with Iran.
Indeed, Beijing opposes the imposition of automatically reversible sanctions on Iran, also known as “snapbacks,” to ensure compliance with a final deal. While analysts have questioned the practical feasibility of such sanctions in any event, China’s stated position suggests that its economic ties with Iran take precedence over securing Tehran’s compliance. As such, any sanctions relief Beijing grants as part of a final agreement is likely to remain permanent even if Iran violates it.
Put differently, the Iran-China partnership helps bolster Tehran’s intransigence at the negotiating table and gives the Islamist regime little incentive to compromise. It effectively offsets the international isolation Iran has experienced due to Western sanctions, supplying Tehran with a powerful patron that shares its foremost adversary.
The United States must first demonstrate it understands that Tehran and Beijing are working together to undermine American leadership in the Middle East. Then it must act to prevent them from doing so. Unfortunately, by failing to combat Iranian regional aggression and seeking a deal that would allow the regime to become a threshold nuclear state, the Obama administration conveys the message that Beijing and Tehran’s efforts are succeeding.


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