Iran’s Turn to China

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks at a news conference on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York City, September 26, 2019. (Brendan Mcdermid/Reuters)
Iran is running into the arms of China in ‘shift to east’ strategy against the U.S.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE A   secret deal between Iran and China is in the works, part of a wider 25-year strategic vision between the two countries. Such rumors percolated in Tehran in early July at the same time that Iran was being bombarded by mysterious explosions affecting its missile and nuclear programs. The Iranian regime’s media, particularly voices and media close to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, have tried to affirm that the rumors are true and that the new shift east is a strategic challenge to the U.S. in the Middle East. The regime is also downplaying other rumors that Iran is giving away islands and slices of its economy to bring Beijing in the door.

The Iranian shift to China is part of a tectonic movement across the Middle East. Countries and groups linked to Iran now seek to exploit perceived U.S. weakness as an opportunity to get around Washington’s sanctions and to bolster Beijing. The long-term consequences are grave. China has already sought to influence other U.S. allies, such as Israel, through infrastructure projects, including port and desalination deals. Beijing has also sold drones to key U.S. partners, such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Jordan. Now China senses an opportunity to embrace Tehran, along with Iran’s allies in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.

Tehran’s decision to shift toward China comes in the context of unprecedented sanctions under Washington’s maximum-pressure campaign. With the U.S. Navy intercepting Iran’s shipments of weapons to its Houthi rebel allies and Israel striking Iranian precision-guidance munitions on the way to Hezbollah via Syria, Iran is in desperate need of stronger allies. It has found support at the U.N. Security Council from Russia and China on the upcoming expiration of an arms embargo. It has also been able to ship at least nine tankers full of gas to Venezuela. But these are drops in the economic bucket compared with what China could provide. Thus the IRGC, which controls much of Iran’s ballistic-missile and drone programs, as well as foreign and military policy and parts of Iran’s economy, is hyping the new strategic deal with China via Iranian media outlets. On July 13, Fars News and Tasnim networks bragged that Iran had outwitted Washington.

What is at stake here? Iran–China relations are multi-layered. First, those in Iran’s regime who prefer China have accused president Hassan Rouhani and foreign minister Javad Zarif of being too supplicating towards the West. At the same time, there are more far-right nationalist voices, such as former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejed, who infer that deals with China will sell out Iran’s resources. All of this has played out unusually in Iran’s media, which, despite being controlled by the regime, are not a complete monolith and sometimes reflect the regime’s inner struggles. For instance, a July 10 Fars News article in Iran asserted that “westernization” of Iran’s foreign policy was preventing the move to China.

After weeks of internal discussions, Iran’s Foreign Ministry says the country is ready for a roadmap that underpins more than two decades of economic Iran–China cooperation. More important, Iran’s allies in the region are also now shifting towards China. Beijing has long touted its Belt and Road Initiative across the region as a way to link China via Iran to Europe. Iraq, whose government is dominated by pro-Iranian political parties, has also sought out mega-deals with Iran on oil and reconstruction in the last several years. China could play a larger role in the reconstruction of Syria as well. Syria’s regime is an ally of Iran, and the two countries signed an air-defense pact on July 8.

Emblematic of the shift to China among Iran’s octopus-like allies in the region is the speech by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah on July 7. “If you want to see the effectiveness of the Chinese offer, look at the angry American response,” he thundered, describing recent overtures by Beijing to Beirut. Nasrallah says Lebanon must turn east. He said this as he threatened the U.S. ambassador in Beirut, and on the eve of the visit by CENTCOM commander Kenneth McKenzie to Lebanon.

Until now, China has moved cautiously in the Middle East. For example, it conducted a naval exercise with Russia and Iran in December 2019. However, in general, China’s main interest is to bide its time and seek out beneficial economic and infrastructure deals. Increasing clashes with the U.S. may encourage China to move faster to help Iran.

Countries such as Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Iran are hungry for deals with Beijing. As the U.S. considers withdrawing from Syria and repositioning troops in Iraq, the opening to Beijing is widening. China likely prefers to work with Iran and Russia because it can combine its abilities well with theirs. Russia provides the heavy lifting at the U.N. and troops on the ground in Syria while China does the infrastructure and Iran works with local religious communities to influence Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon. To counteract the Iran–China partnership, Washington will need to move quickly to shore up allies and support in the Gulf, among other places.

The Iran–China connection already exists. But for now, Iran may be a net economic loss for China because countries such as Iran and its allies in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon are in economic disarray. That means China would plow investment in without much to show for it initially. The U.S. already plowed investment into Iraq after 2003 and it came to little, due to an active insurgency and later ISIS. Thus, China will move cautiously. It doesn’t want to become a party to a local conflict, but prefers to be seen as a benevolent economic giant willing to work with everyone. In Iran, China and the U.S. might be choosing sides for a wider coming conflict.

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