China’s new footprint in the Middle East starts with Iran

Introduction

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Friday, January 14, 2022, in the city of Wuxi, in China’s Jiangsu province. Both of them discussed a gamut of issues pertaining to the Iran-China relationship, as well as the security situation in the Middle East.

A summary of the meeting, published by the Chinese Foreign Ministry, underscored the point that the Foreign Ministers of Iran and China agreed on the need for strengthening bilateral cooperation in a number of areas under the umbrella of a 25-year agreement known as “Comprehensive Cooperation between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the People’s Republic of China.” This agreement had been signed between both countries in March 2021 during the Presidency of Hassan Rouhani, but the Iranian Foreign Minister of the new Raisi government announced the launch of the agreement on January 14, 2022.

During the meeting there was a realization of the fact that cooperation between both countries needed to be enhanced not only in areas like energy and infrastructure (the focus of the 25-year “comprehensive cooperation agreement” was on infrastructure and energy), but also in other spheres like education, people-to-people contacts, medicine, and agriculture. Iran also praised the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and said that it firmly supported the One China policy.

China-US and the Iran nuclear deal

The timing of this visit is interesting, as Iran is in talks with other signatories to the JCPOA/Iran nuclear deal 2015 (which includes China) for the revival of the 2015 agreement. While Iran has asked for removal of economic sanctions which were imposed by the US after it withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018, the US has said that time is running out, and it is important for Iran to return to full compliance to the 2015 agreement. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in an interview: “Iran is getting closer and closer to the point where they could produce on very, very short order enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon.” The US Secretary of State also indicated that if the negotiations were not successful the US would explore other options along with other allies.

During the course of the January 14 meeting Wang Yi is supposed to have told his Iranian counterpart that while China supported negotiations for the revival of the Iran nuclear deal 2015, the onus for revival was on the US since it had withdrawn in 2018.

The visit of the Iranian Foreign Minister to China was also significant because Foreign Ministers of four Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, and Bahrain — and the Secretary General of the GCC (Nayef Falah Mubarak Al-Hajraf) were in China from January 10-14, 2022, with the aim of expanding bilateral ties – especially with regard to energy cooperation and trade. According to many analysts, the visit of GCC officials to China was driven not just by economic factors, but also the growing proximity between Iran and Beijing.

In conclusion, China is important for Iran from an economic perspective. Iran has repeatedly stated that if the United States does not remove the economic sanctions it has imposed, it will focus on strengthening economic links with China (significantly, China has been purchasing oil from Iran over the past three years in spite of the sanctions imposed by the US). The Raisi administration has repeatedly referred to an ‘Asia-centric’ policy which prioritises ties with China.

Beijing is seeking to enhance its clout in the Middle East as US ties with certain members of the GCC, especially the UAE and Saudi Arabia, have witnessed a clear downward spiral in recent months (the US has been uncomfortable with the use of China’s 5G technology by the UAE and the growing security linkages between Beijing and Saudi Arabia). One of the major economic reasons for the GCC gravitating towards China is Washington’s thrust on reducing its dependence upon GCC for fulfilling its oil needs. Beijing can utilize its good ties with Iran and the GCC and play a role in improving links between both.

The geopolitical landscape of the Middle East is likely to become more complex, and while there is not an iota of doubt that American influence in the Middle East is likely to remain intact, China is fast catching up.

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