Final Nuclear Deal and Iran-China Relations

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Masoud Rezaei
Ph.D. in International Relations &
Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies

As time goes by, relations between Iran and China are changing, so that, during upcoming months, political and economic ties between the two countries may take a new course different from the past. Just recently, Ali Akbar Velayati, President of Iranian Expediency Council’s Center for Strategic Research, said Chinese President Xi Jinping, is expected to visit Iran in the near future. The visit will be a sign of Beijing’s determination to engage more closely with Iran following the conclusion of a final deal over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program. Now, assuming that the final nuclear deal is signed between Iran and the member states of the P5+1 group of countries as expected, the result will be cancellation of certain sanctions imposed by the United States, the European Union, and the United Nations Security Council on Iran. It goes without saying that Iran will be offered with a wide variety of opportunities when such an agreement is signed. Therefore, it is not difficult to guess that such a visit at this level will be probably planned in a way that Xi Jinping will visit Iran soon following the conclusion of the final deal over Iran's nuclear program in order to outdo European rivals in taking advantage of the new opportunities in Iran.

Generally speaking, a final nuclear deal will be of high importance to Iran in regional and international terms in view of its economic advantages and due to the expansion that it will bring to the volume of trade between Tehran and Beijing. But apart from that, such an agreement will come with remarkable strategic and geopolitical considerations, which will cover a wide region from the Persian Gulf all the way east to the Indian Ocean and the Strait of Malacca in addition to the entire length of the Silk Road and Central Asia. China is well aware of this issue because this is a reality which is also closely related to the role and position of the United States, as an undeniable actor both on regional and international levels. This issue has raised many questions. For example, will the balance of power between China and the United States change following a final nuclear deal and reduction of tensions between Iran and the West? Or will such a deal give Iran more latitude in international arena, so that, due to its economic interests in the region, China will have to opt for a more pragmatic foreign and security policy with regard to Iran? At present, it is not very easy to answer any of these questions.

China has always looked upon Iran as a political and strategic heavyweight at the heart of the Middle East. However, following the election of the new Iranian administration and the different approach taken by Iran to nuclear talks with the P5+1 group of countries, which led to the conclusion of an interim deal between the two sides in November 2013, legitimacy of international relations between Iran and China has been further increased. Therefore, subsequent to a final agreement, the cost of developing political, economic and defense relations with the new Iran will be greatly reduced for Beijing in the light of increased cooperation between Iran and the West. On the other hand, however, China will have to sustain new costs for drawing the attention of the new Iran in the region.

It should be noted that Chinese officials and analysts have always considered Iran as leverage for effective bargaining in the face of the United States. Therefore, Beijing is still willing for conditions to continue along the same lines following a final agreement so that China would be able to continue taking advantage of this bargaining chip. As a result, it would not be very easy for China to come to terms with an Iran which is to move toward removal of tensions with the West, especially the United States. The issue that will make this more important is the emergence of China as a major strategic challenge to the United States, which will require more attention from Washington. Therefore, the turn by the US President Barack Obama’s administration toward the East in a bid to contain the growing clout of China by 2016 has been stirring serious security concerns in China with respect to the country’s future policies. In the meantime, Iran can play a determining role in this regard. Any positive signal exchanged between Iran and the West and further closeness between Tehran and Washington can greatly boost Iran's bargaining power in its relations with China. On the other hand, if Obama pulls off new relations between the United States and Iran with the goal of increasing stability in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf regions, he will have more time to pay more attention to Eastern Asia, especially China. This is one of those issues that are currently nagging China as Beijing wonders what may happen subsequent to a final nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 group of countries. China is willing for the United States to continue to grapple with a problem called Iran in the Persian Gulf. Otherwise, Beijing will have to give more tangible and real concessions to Tehran in order for the Islamic Republic of Iran to continue its alliance with China and to allow China to take advantage of the geographical position of Iran.

Therefore, on the one hand, China will have to pay a price for attracting Iran's attention in order to be able to continue using the country as a means of boosting its own global influence and strategic clout in international issues. On the other hand, a final agreement will give Iran more maneuvering room in order to send calculated signals to the West. In this way, Iran will be able to bring new balance to its relations with China in such areas as economy, as well as in security and defense interactions. Therefore, when Iran is out of its current dire economic straits, China will not be able, as it has been in the past, to play its double role with regard to the Islamic Republic. As a result, “active pragmatism will turn into the most salient feature of China’s diplomatic approach to Iran and Beijing may even have to take more strategic and political measures with regard to the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council [(P)GCC] in order to regulate its relations with Iran. Of course, the (P)GCC has continuously defined its identity in relation to its cooperation with the West.

Key Words: Final Nuclear Dea,l Iran-China Relations, Xi Jinping, P5+1, United States, European Union, United Nations Security Council, sanctions, Strategic and Geopolitical Considerations, Rezaei

Source: Iranian Diplomacy (IRD)
Translated By: Iran Review.Org

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