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On Economic, Geostrategic, Security Interests

The Joe Biden Administration in Washington DC is trying hard to reduce the threat of the growing military cooperation between China and Iran. The Every Morning Asia online portal has reported that the 25-year Sino-Iranian Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, signed in March 2021, not only strengthened economic relations (trade and investments) between the two Asian nations, but also pushed forward a greater bilateral military and security cooperation, including common weapons development, sales of sensitive military technology, common military exercises, and intelligence sharing.

With military cooperation and intelligence sharing, Tehran would not only improve its military capabilities, but the anti-missile technology, either developed in cooperation with Beijing or directly designed by China on Iranian territory, also, could convince Tehran that no external threat to its nuclear facilities could endanger its nuclear programme advances.

Both the parties were eager to ponder on the positive value of the agreement, but only Iran emphasised on the security part more publicly. For years, China has been engaging in a balanced foreign policy, trying to cultivate positive relations with both the Gulf and Iran. This is why the recent visit of Iranian Foreign Affairs Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian to Beijing came almost at the same time with that of the foreign ministers of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the Secretary General of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

This diplomatic balancing act and its importance to China is exactly what the US needs to reduce the threat of an over increasing Sino-Iranian military cooperation. Washington DC should press its allies from the Gulf (mostly Saudi Arabia and the UAE) to make it clear to Beijing that any Chinese sell of military weapons to Iran would endanger the diplomatic relations between the GCC and the People’s Republic. This must be conducted in a way that might not induce the feeling in the Gulf that the US would abandon its Arab allies. To do so, the US should not roll back from its initial commitments to sell weapons to the Gulf, thus pushing the monarchies to find their own balanced act and seeking weapons from China to defend themselves from Iran.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (L) with his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amir-Abdollahian (R)

The economic dimension of the Sino-Iranian partnership would also be a security concern for the US. Iranian Foreign Affairs Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian’s recent visit to Beijing to meet his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi was aimed at bolstering diplomatic, economic and security ties between the two countries. The Sino-Iranian closeness, inked under the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, brought forth concern in Washington DC. The partnership would certainly benefit both China and Iran, both of them being opponents to the US.

For Beijing, the agreement with Tehran would bring an increased presence in West Asia (or the Middle East), and gas and oil imports would feed the expanding Chinese Economy. And for Tehran, the deal with Beijing would bring it investments in infrastructure, and an export corridor for its natural resources after more countries gave up Iranian imports under US pressure.

Iranian President Sayyid Ebrahim Raisolsadati

On the surface, the 25-year partnership looks more economical in nature with a boost in trade and investments, but the security implication (especially for the US and the Gulf monarchies) must not be underestimated. An increase in Chinese investments in Iran would give a boost to the Iranian economy besieged by US sanctions. The economic growth would later translate into a further expansion of Iranian operations in West Asia, whether it be the upgrade of its military and nuclear potential or the articulation of its network of proxy groups on which Iran builds its geopolitical might in the Gulf and Levant.

The Chinese investments in Iran and the willingness to feed its industry with Iranian gas and oil would cause Tehran to keep its head up in Vienna negotiations on its Nuclear Programme. Tehran feels that it would have considerable leverage during the negotiations once China has offered it an open door. The bigger the leverage is (and it is considering the Chinese card), the more willing Tehran is to push forward hard to accept terms or to make concessions.

With Beijing informally behind it, Tehran might consider the failure of Vienna negotiations as an unfortunate event, but definitely not a disaster.

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