As nuclear talks between Iran and world powers continue in Vienna, Iran appears to be already eying its next moves.

On Jan. 14, Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian visited China to discuss the 25-year cooperation agreement signed by the two countries earlier this year. That agreement aims to boost economic and political relations at the very same time the United States is looking to reduce its presence in the Middle East.

“At the beginning of the new year in 2022, I am very happy to start my first visit to China since taking office,” Amirabdollahian wrote on Twitter in Chinese. “I exchanged views with Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi on a wide range of issues, such as the comprehensive cooperation plan and the Vienna negotiations, and reached important consensus,” he said without elaborating.

The visit by the Iranian foreign minister is part of an ongoing effort by Tehran to cozy up to the Chinese. For its part, China, which is taking part in negotiations in Vienna as a member of the P5+1 (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China and Germany), appears keen on expanding ties in the Middle East, and that could undermine the ability of the Biden administration to successfully pressure Iran into dropping its nuclear ambitions.

“China’s economic investment in Iran decreases U.S. leverage in the nuclear negotiations in Vienna by undercutting the effectiveness of sanctions,” Ari Cicurel, a senior policy analyst with the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA), told JNS.

“The Biden administration has expressed a desire to shift focus towards strategic competition with China in the Indo-Pacific, but Beijing is actively strengthening its position in the Middle East. While the official China-Iran partnership agreement remains a secret, a leaked document calls for increased military, weapons development and intelligence cooperation that should alarm the United States, Israel and the Gulf states,” he said.

While the Biden administration hopes to salvage the 2015 nuclear deal, Iran has been ramping up conditions for its return, which would include removing all sanctions imposed since 2018, as well as a guarantee that a future U.S. president would not withdraw from the deal. It has also been ramping up its nuclear program, increasing its uranium enrichment with more advanced centrifuges.

In an interview with NPR, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the world is running out of time to stop a nuclear Iran.

“We’re very, very short on time. The runway is very short,” he said. “Iran is getting closer and closer to the point where they could produce on very, very short order enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon.”

Blinken said that that the United States has “a few weeks left to see if we can get back to mutual compliance.”

With Chinese support, Iran could become even more problematic for Washington and its allies, like Israel.

“China could significantly enhance Iran’s ballistic missile and drone technologies, which Iranian proxies use to target American service members and partners in the region,” said Cicurel.

“An Iran with greater military support and weapons capabilities from China could undermine Israel’s campaign between the wars in Syria and Lebanon, and potentially make Tehran more willing and able to strike Israel by evading or overwhelming its air defenses.”

Similarly, the Chinese could provide cover for Iran to continue to ramp up its nuclear program and protect it from U.S. or Israeli strikes.

Cicurel said “Chinese cooperation that improves Iran’s anti-access/area-denial capabilities could encourage Tehran’s confidence that breaking out to a nuclear weapon would be successful and make it more challenging for the United States or Israel to stop it.”

‘U.S. sanctions enforcement has been lax’

China has also become an important lifeline for the Iranian economy after the United States reimposed sanctions on Iran following its withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear agreement. At the same time, Iran has become a key energy resource for China. Last year, China important at least 590,000 barrels of oil per day from Iran, according to Kpler, a Paris-based commodity-data provider.

Jason Brodsky, policy director at United Against Nuclear Iran, told JNS that U.S. sanctions enforcement on Iran has been lax.

“According to United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI)’s assessment, from January to September 2021, Iran exported almost 300 million barrels of crude oil and gas condensates. That is almost 100 million barrels more than the equivalent period in 2020,” he said. “In our calculations, comparing all of 2020 to 2021, Iran increased its export total by 123 million barrels—an increase of more than 40 percent. China is a big part of that increase.”

Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi, a hardliner who took office in August, appears intent on expanding Iran’s ties with non-Western countries like China in a bid to evade U.S. sanctions. Raisi is expected to visit Russia soon, and Iran has recently struck bartering-style deals with Pakistan and Sri Lanka to sell oil and gas, reported The Wall Street Journal.

“This is, in part, why Tehran has been moving like a turtle in Vienna and has not exhibited the degree of urgency in negotiations with the P5+1. The Biden administration has said it has been tackling this influx diplomatically, but that is not the same thing as actual enforcement of U.S. sanctions,” said Brodsky.

“The Iranian system thus far has calculated it could sustain its current stalling posture by using the Vienna negotiations to advance its nuclear program, build a resistance economy, and pivot to China and Russia,” he added.

Although Brodsky cautioned reading too much into Iran and China’s budding relationship, he noted that China is also courting partnerships with Arab states in the Middle East. In recent days, China hosted a number of Arab Gulf officials from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain. China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi also spoke last week with his counterpart in the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

“Beijing will continue to carefully calibrate and balance its relations between Iran and the Gulf Arab states,” he said. “We see this in the separate trips this week of foreign ministers from the Gulf Arab states and Iran to China. However, in doing so, it is throwing Tehran a lifeline.”


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