The Iranian Revolution of 1979 redefined Iran’s relations with China. Whereas Mohammad Reza Pahlavi had largely ignored the country, Iran’s revolutionaries saw in China a powerful nation that shared their antipathy toward Cold War superpowers, and was prepared to supply arms. 1979 was also a milestone year for China, as it marked Deng Xiaoping’s introduction of economic reforms that helped make China the energy-hungry economic giant it is today.
Iran has long relied on China to use its position on the United Nations Security Council to shelter Tehran diplomatically, but China departed from that tradition in 2010, when it supported UN resolution 1929, which sanctioned Iran over its nuclear program. Today, China awaits the opportunity to invest without restriction in Iran, while some in Iranian government look to China as a development model.
Alireza Nader, an international policy analyst at the RAND Corporation and co-author of China and Iran: Economic, Political, and Military Relations, spoke to IranWire about the relationship.
What considerations drew Iran and China together after the 1979 revolution?
Iran relied on China because it was isolated, and needed weapons during its war with Iraq. Both the Chinese government and the Iranian government were the result of ideological revolutions, and they shared similar objectives. They were both resentful of past Western intervention in their countries, and neither of them was aligned with the United States or the Soviet Union, although the US and China had a pretty good relationship after President Richard Nixon visited in 1972. There was a sense that as ancient civilizations that had been wronged by the West, they could work together.
What are China’s long-term interests in the Middle East, and how does Iran fit into the Chinese strategic trajectory?
The major factor is energy. As China became a net importer of oil and gas in 1993, they saw the Middle East as an important, reliable source. China has good relations with all the major Middle Eastern oil producers: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Qatar. It also has good relations with Israel and Turkey.
China hasn’t become very involved geopolitically in the Middle East, and it doesn’t have a major military or security presence. But the Chinese are worried about the rise of Islamic radicalism. There have been reports of Chinese Muslims fighting in Syria and Iraq. The Islamic State has claimed that it is interested in extending its caliphate to western China; some Chinese reacted with alarm, and others laughed it off.
Just because China is not involved in terms of security in the Middle East right now doesn’t mean that will remain the status quo in the future. I don’t believe that China wants to get involved in the Middle East in the way that the US and the major European powers and Russia have been, but it is worried about its ability to rely on major oil producers.
What are the most important forms of assistance China has provided Iran, and what has Iran most valued?
Historically China was an important weapons supplier to Iran, not just during the Iran-Iraq War, but also after the war. It has helped Iran develop its own indigenous capabilities, for example anti-ship cruise missiles. Initially China helped Iran with its nuclear program, although it hasn’t provided any direct assistance in years. The most important aspect of the relationship is economic. China is, despite sanctions, Iran’s number one oil customer. While China has largely complied with sanctions, and Chinese companies have frozen a lot of activities and investments, the Chinese are looking to get back into Iran in a serious way if there’s a nuclear deal and sanctions are eased.
China has protected Iran from isolation for decades, perhaps more than any other country. How dependent is Iran on China?
Iran has become economically dependent, or you might argue over-dependent, on China. But in the long run the Chinese want to have normal, productive relations with Iran. They don’t want to dominate Iran or interfere in its affairs or dictate its government. For years, especially under the Ahmadinejad government, Iran saw China as its most important economic and geopolitical partner. But I would never describe the two countries as allies or strategic partners because the Chinese don’t see it that way. They take a more hands-off approach.
The Iranians were surprised that China went along with US sanctions when they voted for UN Security Council Resolution 1929 in 2010, which imposed the last round of UN sanctions on Iran. Overall China has gone along with sanctions and they have really curtailed their purchase of Iranian oil. There was a sense of betrayal there, Iran’s leadership expected closer cooperation. The Ahmadinejad government was upset about that.
How did the US convince China to support that resolution?
The Obama administration did a good job of convincing the rest of the international community that Iran’s nuclear pursuit was, and remains, a major global security concern. The US was successful because it also convinced other players that it wanted to resolve the nuclear issue diplomatically. That helped China to come on board.
Did China ever have a genuine fear of US military action against Iran?
They may have had a more genuine fear of Israeli military action, but they were worried about military conflict in the Persian Gulf because they are heavily reliant on oil from the region, much more so than the United States. A military conflict, if it had cut off oil supplies, would have been potentially devastating.
Would China care if Iran was nuclear-armed, or was backing sanctions simply a matter of pleasing the international community?
China would not want Iran to have nuclear weapons. It’s an issue of proliferation. Why have additional states with nuclear weapons when that could lead other states to consider developing those capabilities? The Chinese are concerned, but there isn’t a history of bitterness and rivalry between Iran and China, and China doesn’t view Iran necessarily as a dangerous power. At the same time, China wants to be seen as a responsible international power.
What tools has the US used to influence China’s relationship with Iran?
The biggest form of leverage the US has is its economic relationship with China. Under the terms of US sanctions against Iran, if foreign companies and countries do business with Iran, they can’t do business with the US. The US is a larger market, so naturally China is going to value its relationship with the United States more.
To what extent has the China-Iran relationship been triangular, in the sense that the US is always the other big player in the room?
US interests toward Iran really impact China’s attitude towards Iran. If the US sees Iran as hostile, China is less likely to get too close to Iran. It will be interesting to see, as tensions between China and the US grow, especially in East Asia, how the Chinese react to that. Are they going to become even closer to Iran? If there is a nuclear deal, will they start selling weapons to Iran? That’s a big unknown.
Have Chinese or Iranian leaders ever expressed anxiety that the other’s country might become more open politically?
The fact that both countries are relatively authoritarian or non-democratic and reject Western intervention in their domestic affairs makes them more reliable partners for each other. China would be concerned if Iran became more democratic, or aligned with the West. For China and Russia, the U.S.-Iranian rivalry does pay off, because Iran is the only major Middle East power that is not allied with the United States.
Why did Iranian protestors express anti-Chinese sentiments in 2009?
One major reason was because they saw China and Russia as the foreign powers closest to the Ahmadinejad government. There were reports that China helped Iran’s security forces with equipment to monitor Internet communications and that China provided armored personnel carriers. Even if Chinese assistance to the Iranian government wasn’t that significant, there is always the perception in Iran that foreign powers are meddling in Iranian affairs. Conservatives in Iran tend to blame the United States and the United Kingdom. In 2009, their opponents within the Green Movement blamed other powers like China and Russia.
At that time, China and Russia were pretty close to Iran. We hadn’t seen Russian and Chinese support for strong sanctions against Iran. They were viewed as enabling the Ahmadinejad government.
Does China now represent a development model for regime-loyal pragmatists like Hassan Rouhani, in the sense that it improves living standards without opening up politically?
People like former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani have always wanted Iran to become an economic power, but it’s not clear how they have tried to emulate the Chinese model, because Iran’s economy is very state controlled and tightly regulated and dependent on energy exports. They haven’t made fundamental economic changes to emulate China. They talk a lot about it. I really do think that centrist politicians in Iran, and especially some of the more moderate conservatives, see China as a potential role model because it has developed economically in a tremendous way in the past few decades and has achieved that while remaining authoritarian, and ostensibly communist.