Iran has come to the conclusion that a deal with the United States and Europe over its nuclear capabilities no longer meets its cost-benefit analysis. The decarbonizing West may no longer serve as a destination for Iran’s oil and gas, and, in Tehran’s view, cannot be trusted to adhere to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA (even though the same clearly goes for Iran), while the Western economy and political system are no longer viewed favorably in the wake of the coronavirus crisis.
China, on the other hand, has emerged as a favorable alternative from Iran’s perspective. Beijing has shown its appetite for Iranian oil and gas over the years, and its growing economy will maintain demand for decades; its thirst for fuel remained even under U.S. sanctions, and it even assisted Tehran in skirting those sanctions. Iran sees in China a country with a centralized political system more in line with its own and that would not pressure Tehran to change its policies, or push for regime change, and may even provide it with better tools to control and monitor the Iranian population.
Moreover, both countries view the United States as their chief strategic rival. They are both pursuing policies to weaken Washington’s power, standing and influence in their respective regions, and develop military capabilities to deny and disrupt the U.S. armed force’s ability to project power into these regions. They have even signed a comprehensive strategic cooperation deal and broadened military ties. As America draws down from the Middle East in order to focus on the “Indo-Pacific,” China may find Iran useful in disrupting Washington’s plans.
But despite the rosy outlook from Tehran, China’s view of Iran is, in fact, more nuanced. It views Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as strong partners in the Middle East and doesn’t want to sour relations with them by embracing Iran. Furthermore, Beijing is still careful not to anger the United States by overtly and comprehensively defying sanctions. On the economic side, while China is willing to invest in Iran as part of its “Belt and Road” initiative, such investment remains limited.
With regard to the JCPOA, it seems that China is content to let negotiations drag out and has been leveraging it to criticize the United States and point out Washington’s failures in the Middle East. The Iranian strategic bet on China plays a major part in the failure to restore the deal, Tehran’s ability to sustain its economy under sanctions and Iran’s pursuit of a “resistance economy.”
Should China continue with its current policy regarding the nuclear negotiations, Iran may use the space and time to advance its nuclear plans and may even view it as tacit approval to develop a nuclear weapon, much as North Korea did. If this scenario comes to pass, it would impact China’s image as a willing backer of such regimes and an ally to an emboldened enemy of many in the Middle East.
China’s singular importance to Iran’s current and future economy lends it significant influence over Tehran to limit its nuclear actions and regional behavior. Whether China likes it or not, it now seems to own the Iran issue. It is therefore important that China recognizes its unique position and play a responsible and prominent role in addressing the Islamic regime’s behavior and preventing it from further destabilizing the region.
Beijing must understand that if Iran is left unchecked, even before it reaches a nuclear weapon, it would destabilize a region critical to China’s energy needs and might foment ill will toward Beijing in an area that is a willing economic partner.
Mideast nations wary of Iran’s regional and nuclear aspirations are seeking to influence Beijing’s policies towards Iran. They should try and encourage China to view the situation not as a “zero-sum game” with America, to seek initiatives that help stabilize the region and show that both great powers can work together, even in competition.
As for the United States and Israel, they both separately and jointly should devise a China-Iran policy that engages Beijing on Iran and shared interests in maintaining stability in the Middle East, especially the Persian Gulf, and develop a joint understanding of the goals, ways and means to do so.
They must seek to enhance China’s role in the nuclear negotiations, as it is Beijing that holds the relevant leverages to prod and to cajole Tehran to return to a nuclear deal, and possibly commit to a more comprehensive deal down the line.
If, however, engaging China fails, they should seek to reduce the viability of Iran’s strategy of dependence on it and impose increasing costs on such policies.
Lt. Col. Yochai Guiski (IDF, Ret.) is a publishing expert at The MirYam Institute. He served in various roles, including Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), Israel’s Strategic Planning Division and the Ministry of Defense.