Raisi’s Visit & Growing China-Iran Relations: A Bridge Or A Threat to the West?
After the withdrawal of the US from the JCPOA, China-Iran ties in the economic and strategic sphere have strengthened. Both countries signed a 25-year agreement – referred to as a ‘strategic cooperation pact’. While on the one hand, there has been talking of a strong Iran-Russia-China trio emerging. It is also important to bear in mind, that China has been trying to play the role of intermediary between the West and Iran.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s China trip from February 14 to February 16, 2023 – was his first ever since he took over the office in August 2021. After the withdrawal of the US from the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) / Iran nuclear deal 2015, in 2018, and the imposition of sanctions, China-Iran ties in the economic and strategic sphere have strengthened.
In 2021, both countries signed a 25-year agreement – referred to as a ‘strategic cooperation pact’ – with the objective of strengthening economic and security cooperation between Iran and China. This agreement and the changing geopolitical situation globally helped in further bolstering relations between both countries. Non-oil trade turnover between Iran and China between March 2022 and January 2023 was estimated at $ 25 billion.
After taking over as US President, Joe Biden initially invested a lot of political capital in attempting to revive the Iran nuclear deal – much to the discomfort of not just Republicans, but some of his party colleagues as well. In recent months, talks have been on hold with western countries — US and E3 countries (UK, France, and Germany) – who are signatories to the deal – apart from Russia and China — stating that Iran is expanding its nuclear program. In the immediate aftermath of the Russia-Ukraine war, the US allowed several countries to purchase oil from Iran. China has been purchasing large amounts of oil from Iran and the Biden Administration’s envoy to Iran Robert Malley said: “China is the main destination of illicit exports by Iran”. Malley also said that the US would take up this issue with China during bilateral talks.
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In 2022, the US imposed several sanctions against Iran. First, in September 2022, the US imposed sanctions on companies based in China Hong Kong, Iran, India, and the United Arab Emirates for selling Iranian petrochemicals and petroleum products to Asian buyers. Several other sanctions have been imposed by the US on senior security officials with regard to the death of activist Mahsa Amini and violence against protesters. Iran’s decision to supply drones to Russia which have been used against Ukraine has also not gone down well with western countries.
On the eve of his China visit, Raisi spoke about the strong bilateral relationship between Tehran and Beijing. Said Raisi: “Iran will, as always, uphold policies to strengthen Iran-China bilateral ties, and this will not be affected by any changes in the regional and international situation”.
During his China trip, the Iranian President met with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, and Li Zhanshu, chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress. During the Raisi-Xi meeting, several issues were discussed and both sides signed several agreements including in areas like trade. The Chinese President while referring to the strong bilateral relationship between both countries said that his government opposed interference in Iran’s internal affairs and that Beijing would work with Tehran “..on issues involving each other’s core interests,”
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The Chinese President also called for the removal of sanctions against Iran and a revival of the 2015 JCPOA. Here it would be important to point out, that while on the one hand, there has been talking of a strong Iran-Russia-China trio emerging. It is also important to bear in mind, that China has been trying to play the role of intermediary between the west and Iran. US State Department Spokesperson Nick Price while referring to Iran’s nuclear program and its foreign policy alluded to the important role of China. Said Price: “The PRC has a role to play by clearly signaling to Iran that its destabilizing activities — that its brinksmanship — is not going to be rewarded, it’s not going to be countenanced. It is not something that the international community is prepared to sit idly by and watch.”
In conclusion, due to the further downslide in US-China and US-Iran ties, the proximity between Tehran and Beijing is likely to grow. There is no denying the fact that Iran’s economy is facing serious challenges and the revival of the JCPOA — which seems highly unlikely in the present scenario — could provide respite to Iran’s beleaguered economy. Both Washington and Iran need to work towards bringing down tensions and adopt a more flexible and pragmatic approach. While an aggressive Iran policy will be counterproductive for the US, the excessive dependence upon China is unlikely to resolve Iran’s economic problems, and Tehran should seek to address the fears regarding its nuclear program. Raisi’s China visit is important in the context of the Iran-China relationship but also has broader geopolitical implications.
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About the author
Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi-based Policy Analyst. He is associated with The Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, Sonepat, Haryana.