Iran-China Relations: An Iranian View

Monday, September 27, 2010

Mohsen Shariatinia

Active ImageExpansion of political and economic relations between Tehran and Beijing in recent years has been source of many debates about regional and international impacts of Iran-China relations. Western media have always exaggerated those relations by making frequent use of such phrases as “Iran-China coalition,” “China is the main hurdle cushioning the effect of UN sanctions on Iran,” and “China saves Iran.” From my viewpoint, the true nature of Iran’s relations with China is much different from what western media have been trying to depict.

The most important erroneous presumption about those relations, which is frequently observed in the western media, is that Iran’s relations with China are of high strategic significance while establishment of such relations needs many preconditions.

Strategic relations are established between two states when they are facing “a common threat” and, therefore, come up with a plan for strategic collaboration aimed at thwarting that threat. Iran and China are not facing common threats at international level to be used as a ground to develop strategic collaboration and promote bilateral ties to the level of strategic alliance. There is great difference between security issues as well as threats faced by Iran and China. In other words, each country pursues totally different priorities in its international interactions.

The most important priority for the Iranian foreign policy is currently the nuclear program and to deal with US and Israel’s threats. Meanwhile, China’s main foreign policy priority is promotion of Beijing’s plan to speed up China’s economic development. In addition, due to the power structure in the world following the end of the Cold War, there has been rarely a firm ground for the establishment of strategic relations between the two states. That is, unlike the Cold War era when international environment was more transparent and many countries were aligned with either of two superpowers, international power structure and politics have taken a new and different course since early 1990s and countries have been seldom capable of forming strategic alliances.

China’s approach to Iran’s nuclear case is a good example. China has voted positive for all sanction resolutions against Iran and has worked with other powers (of course in a manner special to China) to put more pressure on Iran. Naturally, if bilateral relations were of strategic quality, China would have behaved differently.

Moreover, despite news about extensive cooperation between Tehran and Beijing in energy sector and conclusion of multimillion-dollar contracts, Chinese companies have adopted a policy of “wait and see” and none of those contracts has, thus far, entered into force. Obviously, that policy is the result of pressure from the United States.

Therefore, relations between Iran and China are neither an alliance, nor a coalition; meanwhile, China’s support for Iran has not been substantial. In reality, China is a member of a consortium of big powers and follows its general policies in dealing with Iran, especially with regard to the nuclear program. Therefore, Iranian politicians do not expect much from China and they have not been even surprised by China’s positive vote for anti-Iran resolutions at the Security Council.

During the past three decades, especially after the eight-year war with Iraq, Iran has been following a strategy of internal balancing to counteract the forthcoming threats and has relied on domestic sources for the promotion of its strategic goals more than any foreign power. This strategy does not allow for big powers, especially Russia and China (whose international stances is sometimes different from the western block) to play a substantial role in determining Iran’s international standing or its success or failure in achieving strategic goals.

In short, Iran-China relations should be assessed from a totally new standpoint.

Mohsen Shariatinia is the senior researcher at the Asia Research Group of the Center for Strategic Research, Iran