Iran’s Look East Policy and China’s March West Policy: Mapping Reciprocal Advantages

How Time Shaped Iran’s Bonhomie with China.

The adage that timing is everything in life is relevant to the Sino-Iranian partnership. During Iran’s war in the 1980s, the cooperation between China and Iran centered on matters of war and peace. In the post-war period, as Iran shifted its focus to economic development, the nature of Sino-Iranian collaboration also evolved accordingly. Chrono-political analysis suggests that the success of agreements hinges not on their inherent quality but on the timing of their execution. The recent death of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi has altered the conditions surrounding the Cooperation Agreement between the two nations. This situation presents both a significant opportunity and a considerable risk for China. By supporting Iran in its current conflict with Israel, China could secure a powerful commitment from Iran. However, this involvement could also position China unfavorably with the United States and its Israeli allies. In modern conflicts, where military might often overshadow diplomatic efforts, verbal agreements made during times of war are inherently fragile and untrustworthy. Recognizing this dynamic, China demonstrated its strategic awareness by participating alongside Russia in a joint naval drill in the Gulf of Oman. The People’s Republic of China (henceforth, PRC) and the Islamic Republic of Iran (henceforth, Iran) share a long-standing history, as underscored by the words of PRC’s President Xi Jinping on January 22, 2016:

„Pomegranate is well-liked in China for its crimson flower and bountiful seeds, for which it came to symbolize plentifulness and prosperity. Introduced from Iran to China centuries ago, the fruit bears witness to the history of friendly exchanges between the Chinese and Iranians along the Silk Road and augurs even more fruitful cooperation between our two countries.“

— President Xi Jinping, 2016

President Xi’s statement coincided with the first visit of a Chinese leader to Iran since 2002. Before this, Iran had been subjected to extensive sanctions following the departure of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, on January 16, 1979. These sanctions affected Iran’s major growth sectors, including trade, banking, investment, and public health. Without the ability to utilize these sectors effectively, Iran’s geopolitical significance was diminished, necessitating external assistance to build a robust economic foundation. While Iran remains a significant regional power in the Middle East, it is also a nation frequently targeted by Western powers, particularly the USA.

The impact of the Russian-Ukrainian War on Iran has been profound, providing Iran with a renewed license to sell and meeting Russia’s growing demand to buy. However, it raises the question of whether Russia, already engaged in its own conflict, can extend support to Iran. Similarly, it remains uncertain whether China can act as the „knight in shining armor“ for a beleaguered Iran, given its existing engagements in multiple conflict zones, such as the South China Sea and its borders with India. 

China has developed a prominent strategic response to Iran’s geography and geopolitical position, which involves bolstering Iran’s regional and global influence. This strategy delves into the motives behind China’s actions in the Middle East, particularly its partnership with Iran, highlighting the crucial role of geopolitics and timing in shaping this alliance. Now, more than ever, is the time for China to demonstrate its solidarity with Iran. China’s economic interests are tied to both Iran’s oil and its access to European and Western markets. While Iran is crucial for meeting Chinese energy requirements, the path to leveraging this relationship for economic growth is increasingly difficult. The ongoing regional conflict is causing significant daily financial losses for China. Thus, it is in China’s interest to disengage from the Israeli-Iranian hostilities.

A weakened Iran presents a seemingly perfect opportunity for China to offer support, but this strategy is fraught with substantial risks, both physically and metaphorically. China has a pattern of what can be termed „country-paving“ geopolitics. This approach involves identifying geopolitically relevant countries to further their national interests by supporting their economic, industrial, and infrastructural development. In return, China gains the support of these countries, which helps to secure international compliance and bolster its power through their votes in international forums.

Between 2002 and 2016, Iran was subjected to numerous sanctions. Initially imposed by the United States and other Western countries, these were followed by sanctions from the United Nations Security Council beginning in 2006. These sanctions could have complicated Iran’s relations with China, particularly in terms of commerce. Nevertheless, both nations managed to withstand international scrutiny and continued their commercial transactions. The strategic and economic benefits that Iran and China offer each other in the current geopolitical environment are frequently cited as foundations for their alliance. Since the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and the subsequent re-imposition of economic sanctions on Iran, the U.S. has shifted its focus eastward, seeking enhanced collaboration with China. Despite these U.S. sanctions, Chinese companies remain active in the Iranian market. However, due to their urgent mutual requirements, China has had to carefully navigate its dealings with Iran to avoid antagonizing the United States, one of its key trading partners. China’s increasing focus on Iran has undergone rapid and continuous development under the leadership of Xi Jinping. Therefore, it warrants a comprehensive and critical examination to understand China’s strategic considerations and potential opportunistic assessments of Iran. Such an analysis is essential for grasping the implications for Iranian & Chinese foreign policy behavior, the impact of China’s growing influence in the Middle East, and its broader geopolitical objectives with Iran. 

This series, entitled „Iran’s Look East Policy and China’s March West Policy: Mapping Reciprocal Advantages,“ comprises four segments: First, Chronological Influences: How Time Shaped Iran’s Bonhomie with China. Second, Geostrategic and Defense Collaboration: Iran’s Eastern Expansion with China. Third, Commercial and Connectivity Engagement: Iran’s Eastern Expansion with China. Fourth, Navigating Cultural and Religious Paradoxes: Iran’s Relations with China and Conclusion.

(To be continued in Part 2)