Iran–China–US Triangle

Friday, October 28, 2011

Mohsen Sahriatinia

Bilateral relations between countries are function of different variables which affect those relations at different levels. One of them is the presence of a third player. Naturally, the ability of a third player to affect bilateral relations between two countries is a result of that player’s power. If the third player is a powerful one, its impact on bilateral relations between two other countries can be destructive or constructive. Iran’s relations with China are no exception to that general rule. The impact of the United States, as a third player, can be traced in Iran-China relations, on the one hand, while Iran’s effect on Washington-Beijing ties has been also evident in different forms, on the other hand.

In other words, the type of interaction between two sides of the triangle will leave profound effects on the third side’s foreign policy and will elicit its powerful reaction. For example, warm relations between Iran and US, on the one side, and cordial ties between Beijing and Washington, on the other side, in the middle of the 1970s, were instrumental in further bolstering ties between Iran and China. Similarly, the end of the Cold War and subsequent changes in the international system caused natural changes in foreign policy goals and strategies of three sides of that triangle. The United States, as winner of the Cold War, was trying to establish its domination over the international system under the aegis of the so-called “new world order.” On the other hand, the collapse of the former Soviet Union as common enemy of China and the United States put an end to strategic collaboration between Beijing and Washington. Concerns about domination of the United States over new international world system prompted China to try and introduce multilateralism to the new system. The country’s growing energy demand also made it to get closer to Iran. Iran, as the third side of the triangle, had weathered a long war with Iraq and was doing its best to reconstruct the country and mend fences with the highest number of countries possible. Given the limitations facing Iran at international level, China and its booming economy appealed to Tehran as an attractive option for the expansion of foreign relations. It was then that the other side of the triangle, that is, the United States, started putting pressures and causing limitations on both Iran and China to prevent expansion of bilateral ties between two countries. Pressures on China mostly consisted of imposing sanctions on the Chinese companies that did business with Iran, selling arms to Taiwan….

In the past decade, further changes in foreign policies of three sides of the triangle have brought more changes to their interactions. Following 9/11 terror attacks, the United States has made fighting terrorism and preventing proliferation of weapons of mass destruction first priority of its foreign policy. As a result, Iran has been announced by Washington as belonging to the “Axis of Evil.” The United States at first aimed to bring about political changes to countries recognized as members of that Axis. On the other side of the triangle, Iran’s nuclear program has entered a more sensitive stage and has been the focal point of one of the most important international crises. The situation got even worse as a result to the face-about in Iran’s foreign policy after the election of the ninth government.

Following 9/11, relations between China and the United States have been marked with “strategic cooperation and rivalry” with collaboration being the dominant feature. In fact, after 9/11 and reduction of US pressure on China, Beijing has been offered an opening to pursue its regional goals. In other words, the US domination on the Middle East has offered China one of the greatest opportunities in its foreign policy.

As goals and approaches in Iran, US and Chinese foreign policies changed, Iran’s relations with the United States have been marked with harsher rhetoric and increased possibility of military confrontation. On the other hand, Washington and Beijing have started their political honeymoon. Naturally, under such conditions, there is more way for the United States and China to become harmonized in their reactions to international issues. Coordination between China and the United States in dealing with Iran’s nuclear case at the UN Security Council is a major manifestation of that harmony between Washington and Beijing.

The course of Iran’s nuclear case in the Security Council forced China to make a choice. The country finally chose to vote positive for four anti-Iran sanctions resolutions. Those votes put an end to debates about a possible political coalition between Iran and China and proved that the latter country preferred to play the role of a “committed stakeholder” in the international system forged by the United States over other options. Meanwhile, Iran’s economic relations with China have been further restricted in previous years, especially with regard to banking transactions as well as oil and gas deals. Undoubtedly, pressures from the United States and escalation of tension between Tehran and Washington have been instrumental in bringing about the current state of affairs.

Therefore, one may say that the general situation of the aforesaid triangle determine the quality of relations between Iran and China. The Chinese officials have defined their relations with important international and regional players over a continuum which varies from strategic partnership to friendship and collaboration. Their relations with countries which are tantamount to Iran in terms of political weight such as South Africa and Saudi Arabia are defined within framework of strategic cooperation. Despite the willingness on the Iranian side, however, they have been so far reluctant about defining their relations with Iran within those frameworks. The main reason behind that reluctance is, no doubt, pressures from the United States.

Meanwhile, the general image, especially in the mass media is that due to rapid development of trade exchanges between Iran and China which has made China number one trade partner of Iran, the same is also true about other areas especially when it comes to strategic interactions. In reality, however, despite 100 percent growth in Iran-China economic relations during past years, strategic interaction between the two countries has been in decline because economics and politics follow different logics on important issues. Another point which should be especially taken into account when analyzing rapid growth of Iran’s economic relations with China is that Beijing’s foreign trade has been rapidly increasing with many other countries and the expansion of Iran trade is but part of that normal trend.

Anyway, it is hardly possible that the current situation of Iran – China – US triangle will undergo a major change in the foreseeable future. On the one hand, Iran insists on pursuit of its nuclear goals and is ready to pay a high price to that end. On the other hand, the United States, the West in general, and Israel are using all means at their disposal and even resort to sanctions and threat of the use of military force in order to dissuade Iran. The third side, that is, China, gives more priority to its relations with the United States in its bid to appear as a “committed stakeholder” in the international system. Naturally, a committed stakeholder in an international system engineered by the West will not be able to establish special relations with countries which are considered a threat by the West.

*Mohsen Shariatinia is assistant professor of International Relations at the Mofid University (Qum, Iran) and a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Trade Studies and Research. He is the author of Iran-China Relations: An Introduction (2007) and Developmentalist Foreign Policy: Chinese Experience (2008), both published by the Center for Strategic Research - CSR, in Persian

More By Mohsen Sahriatinia:

*Iran-China Relations: An Overview of Critical Factors:

*Shanghai Cooperation Organization and Practical Capacities for Iran:

*Iran-China Relations: An Iranian View: http://Iran-China Relations: An Iranian View