China dips toes in the Gulf, puts Iran on the defensive
China’s president Xi recently wrapped up a three-day visit to Saudi Arabia, where he met with Saudi officials, including Crown Prince Mohmmad Bin Salman, the de facto ruler of the kingdom. During the trip, the two countries signed a “comprehensive strategic partnership agreement” signaling the deepening of ties between Riyadh and Beijing, which in part seeks to undermine the U.S. position as the hegemon of the region.
But it also managed to ruffle feathers in Iran.
The trip concluded with a joint statement in which, among other measures, Saudi Arabia and China announced their agreement to strengthen cooperation to “maintain the non-proliferation regime,” with respect to Iran, and “emphasize respect for the principles of good- neighborliness and non-interference in internal affairs of states.”
As a further sign of China’s growing interest in the affairs of the Persian Gulf region, the first China-GCC summit was also held in Riyadh. The joint statement emphasized the need to address Iran’s “destabilising regional activities” and “support for terrorist and sectarian groups and illegal armed organisations.” The statement further called for a peaceful resolution to the issue of the three islands in the Persian Gulf where Iran and the United Arab Emirates have territorial disputes. The issue of the islands is a sensitive topic that both the Islamic Republic and Pahlavi Iran have stressed as the country’s inseparable territory.
According to reports, Iranian officials hit back at the portrayal of Tehran and the island disputes in the pair of statements. Facing growing criticism in the Iranian media, Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian tweeted that “the three islands of the Abu Musa, Lesser Tunb and Greater Tunb in the Persian Gulf are inseparable parts of the pure land of Iran and belong to this motherland forever. With regards to respecting the territorial integrity of Iran, we show no complacency with any side.” He did not explicitly mention China.
In a subsequent “meeting” with the Chinese ambassador to Tehran, Amirabdollahian’s deputy for Asian affairs expressed Iran’s “strong dissatisfaction” with the declaration (although the ministry declined to confirm that the Chinese envoy was “summoned.” President Raisi also complained to China’s Vice Premier Hu Chunhua, who was visiting Iran, that “some of the remarks made during President Xi’s trip to the region have caused dissatisfaction from the people and government of Iran.”
Meanwhile, Kamal Kharrazi, former Iranian foreign minister and the head of Strategic Council on Foreign Relations, who is appointed by Ayatollah Khamenei, announced that China’s position on the territorial integrity of Iran was a mistake, and that “it was as if we take a similar position on Taiwan, which is part of China.”
For its part, the Chinese foreign ministry responded by stating that “GCC countries and Iran are all China’s friends, and neither China-GCC relations nor China-Iran relations are targeted at any third party,” and that China respects Iran’s territorial integrity.
Amicable relations between Iran and China date back to pre-Islamic Persia, when the Parthian Dynasty first made contact with representatives of Han China around 140 BCE, when the Chinese were received by Persians with great honor and respect.
During the Cold War, however, the bilateral relationship was contentious until the Sino-Soviet split and Nixon’s détente with China, when the Shah began to view the Chinese as a potential balancer that could offer Iran additional security leverage against the Soviet Union. It bears noting here that the Chinese were among the last foreign leaders that visited the Shah in August 1978 and urged him to crack down on protestors.
Almost immediately after the Islamic Revolution, the Chinese expressed interest in establishing amicable relations with the new regime, going as far as apologizing for Premier Guofeng’s visit to the Shah the previous year. In approaching the revolutionary leaders, Chinese officials emphasized civilizational affinities and the long history of the relationship, and offered flattering remarks about the Iran’s regional and global importance, an approach that has endured ever since.
For their part, Tehran’s new leaders’ interest in cultivating strong relations was driven by strategic necessity, notably their interest in procuring arms to defend the country during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988). The most critical component of Iran’s arms purchases during the period was the purchase of $1 billion worth of HY-2 Silkworm anti-ship missiles, which gave Iran the ability to retaliate against Iraq’s attacks on its oil tankers.
This eventually played a critical role in developing an indigenous defense industry in Iran. Beijing, however, sold billions of dollars worth of weapons to Iraq as well, thus playing both sides of the conflict.
On the international level, too, China has used Iran to extract concessions from the United States. For example, when former president George H.W. Bush agreed to sell 150 F-16s to Taiwan in 1992, Beijing used its nuclear and missile cooperation with Iran to pressure the U.S. to revoke the sale. It was only after its “grand bargain” with the Clinton administration over human rights and Taiwan that China agreed to suspend its cooperation on these two sensitive issues.
China has also proved an unreliable ally at the United Nations by voting in favor of all UN Security Council Resolutions regarding Iran’s nuclear program, while using its veto power to shield the country from a potential military action, which would have devastating effects on its own economy, which is dependent on the free flow of oil from the Persian Gulf region.
While Beijing has continued to participate in the 2015 deal on Iran’s nuclear program, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and officially condemned the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the deal and its reimposition of U.S. sanctions against Iran, Chinese imports from Iran fell from $1.2 billion in October 2018 to $428 million in February 2019.
Moreover, Chinese vessels have reportedly avoided Iranian ports, while Beijing has denied access by Iranian ships to Chinese ports, presumably out of concern over the threat of U.S. sanctions, even as indirect trade between the countries has since partially recovered, according to various reports. Indeed, China has provided a lifeline to Tehran by purchasing Iranian oil, albeit at a discounted price. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, however, Iran has been forced to compete with Moscow’s heavily discounted oil exports, underlining the opportunistic nature of Beijing’s relations with Tehran.
Notwithstanding the flattering remarks often exchanged between Iran and China, and the emphasis on their “friendly relations,” the ties between Tehran and Beijing seem to be more correctly characterized as a marriage of convenience than a strategic partnership.
As Beijing seeks to expand its influence in the Middle East, it seems to have very little interest in becoming embroiled in Iran’s regional conflicts with states such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, with which it prefers to maintain amicable ties. Moreover, Iran’s hostile relationship with the U.S. is likely to push China to retain its traditional hedging strategy, in which it cooperates with Tehran when clearly advantageous but makes significant concessions to Iran’s adversaries, including the U.S. when it appears necessary. In short, Iran continues to remain lonely and deprived of any reliable ally.