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TematicheCina e Indo-PacificoChina stepping into US shoes in Middle East

China stepping into US shoes in Middle East

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China and Iran, the two main adversaries of the United States together with Russia, formally brought into operation a $400-billion, 25-year cooperation deal aimed at bolstering economic and political ties. China also backed Iranian efforts to revive the latter’s 2015 nuclear deal with major powers that the United States unilaterally walked out of in 2018.

In what is considered to be an indirect admission of China’s intention to step into the Middle-East affairs after the gradual withdrawal of the United States from the region, state-owned Xinhua news agency quotes Iran navy’s commander, Rear Admiral Hossein Khanzadi, as saying that the exercise showed “the era of American invasions in the region is over”. The partnership was first proposed by President Xi Jinping during a visit to Iran in 2016 when he met his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani. Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian met Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in Wuxi, in the Jiangsu province, to announce their new partnership. 

China and Iran, both subject to U.S. sanctions, signed the 25-year agreement in March 2021, bringing Iran into China’s Belt and Road Initiative. The projects — nearly 100 of them including airports, high-speed railways and subways — are very much in line with Xi’s ambitions to extend China’s economic and strategic influence across Eurasia through the Belt and Road Initiative, the (in)famous project that aims to significantly expand China’s economic and political influence and has raised concerns in the United States and elsewhere. According to a summary of the meeting by the Chinese Foreign Ministry, the “agreement would deepen Sino-Iranian cooperation in areas including energy, infrastructure, agriculture, health care, and culture, as well as cybersecurity and cooperation with other countries”. According to the Western media, instead, by building relations with Iran China strengthens its foothold in the Middle East, undermines the United States, and further secures access to Iranian oil and other important commodities. For its part, “Iran will get billions of dollars in Chinese energy and infrastructure investment, undercutting the effectiveness of US sanctions against the regime”, some commentators noted.

The implementation of the pact will step up military cooperation between the two countries, which is ultimately the real worry for the United States. China’s future investments in Iran and its purchase of Iranian oil will provide Iran with much-needed revenue to push its “missile and drone arsenal, advance its nuclear program, export terrorism, and attack its neighbours”, according to U.S. analysts. They fear Chinese money will invariably weaken the effectiveness of American sanctions against Iran, which will make it all the more adamant about any future negotiations on its nuclear program. The China-Iran pact also calls for both sides to conduct, much to the worry of the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia, combined military training, exercises, weapons development, and intelligence sharing. In any case, combining with Russia, both China and Iran have already conducted military exercises in the Indian Ocean and in Russia in December 2019 and September 2020, respectively. However, the military relations with Iran will be tempered by China’s simultaneous efforts to build bridges with other Arab governments in the Gulf. Chinese authorities have recently met foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait and Bahrain, so any military agreement with Iran will necessarily have to be such as not to agitate these countries. 

China is only beginning to flex its muscles in the Middle East. Its deal with Iran, the entry of Iran to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and the Iranian foreign minister’s trip to China demonstrate three things: a growing alignment between Beijing and Tehran, Beijing’s burgeoning clout in the Middle East, and the reality that Washington’s great-power competition with China won’t occur in the Indo-Pacific alone.

The announcement of the implementation of the pact comes as talks continue in Vienna on reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi gave a hint of  China’s interest when he said the United States was primarily to “blame” for the ongoing difficulties with Tehran, having unilaterally withdrawn from a 2015 nuclear deal between the major powers and Iran. Under its terms in the deal, Iran agreed to dismantle much of its nuclear program and open its facilities to more extensive international inspections in exchange for billions of dollars’ worth of sanctions relief. However, former U.S. President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the deal in 2018 and Iran subsequently resumed some of its nuclear activities. President Joe Biden has now stated that the U.S. is willing to return to the deal, should Iran complies with the original terms. But Ebrahim Raisi, a conservative cleric elected as Iran’s president in June, “has indicated that he will take a harder line than his predecessor in nuclear negotiations” and wants the US sanctions to be first lifted.

Meanwhile, the restoration of the American sanctions in 2018 crippled the Iranian economy by way of cutting into its vital source of revenue from oil sales. Oil and petroleum products account for 80 per cent of Iran’s exports. Further American sanctions imposed on 18 major Iranian banks in 2020 caused the Iranian Rial to fall further against the U.S. Dollar. Teheran may soon be relieved of some of this pressure because of China stepping in as a partner by buying Iran’s oil and investing in that country.  The New York Times, assessing the bilateral deal, quoted Ali Gholizadeh, an Iranian energy researcher at the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei as saying: “Iran and China both view this deal as a strategic partnership in not just expanding their own interests, but also in confronting the U.S.. It is the first of its kind for Iran keen on having a world power as an ally.”

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