Growing Ties Between China and Iran: The Recent Visit of Raisi to China

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Iran’s president, Ebrahim Raisi, has returned from a three-day visit to Beijing, where he signed 20 cooperation agreements totalling USD 10 billion (€9.4 billion) in commerce, tourism, agriculture, and manufacturing. He was the first Iranian president in two decades to visit China. 

Beijing also rolled out the red carpet for Raisi, who was accompanied by a big trade and finance team. This visit comes in the face of the current complicated changes in the globe, periods, and history. 

China and Iran share a time-tested relationship based on energy and economic cooperation. Iran has the world’s fourth-largest oil reserves and second-largest natural gas reserves, and China is the world’s largest energy consumer. 

During this visit, China and Iran vowed to back each other (and) worked together in solidarity and collaboration. 

While Iran is already subject to stringent US sanctions because of its nuclear program, both countries are pressured by Western nations over their stances on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Besides, this is all part of Iran’s strategy pivot toward the East, which includes collaboration with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and Russia on drone exports. It has mostly abandoned engaging with the West.

In addition to energy cooperation, China and Iran have also worked together on various infrastructure projects, including constructing a railway from Tehran to the eastern Iranian city of Mashhad. China has also invested heavily in Iran’s telecommunications sector, and Chinese companies have been involved in the construction of several major infrastructure projects in Iran. Besides, China’s President Xi Jinping and his Iranian counterpart Ebrahim Raisi have both called for sanctions against Iran to be lifted, as the Iranian leader concluded a three-day ‘fruitful’ visit to China. 

Given this context, Raisi’s visit is anticipated to strengthen ties between the two political and economic allies that reject the United States-led Western dominance in international issues. 

Finding common grounds

China and Iran also have a shared gamut of interest in regional stability and energy cooperation. Both countries are concerned about the influence of the United States in the region and the potential for conflict with other countries, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia. 

Besides, the Ukraine war has changed the geopolitical landscape of international politics. Russia has become one of the country’s few remaining allies as a result of the invasion, which has further isolated Moscow on the global stage. 

Iran has denied providing Russia with armed drones for use in the conflict in Ukraine, as has been claimed by Western nations. 

In December, Washington described what it claimed to be a substantial partnership between Iran and Russia involving aircraft like fighter jets, drones, and helicopters. Beijing is cautious about Moscow’s offensive in Ukraine because it wants to appear impartial while supporting Russia diplomatically as a strategic ally. 

Against such a backdrop, at a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization held in Uzbekistan last September, where the Iranian president urged for deeper ties, Raisi and Xi first interacted. 

China is also Iran’s top commercial partner. Iran exported USD 12.6 billion to Beijing while importing USD 12.7 billion in commodities from China. In 2021, China and Iran signed a 25-year strategic cooperation agreement, which included provisions for economic cooperation and investment in Iran’s infrastructure.

However, during this visit, the Iranian president expressed hope that the new age of ties between Tehran and Beijing would see an increase in economic, political, and cultural collaboration, as well as the realization of a strategic partnership. 

Chinese President Xi stated that China supports Iran in preserving national sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity, and national dignity and in rejecting unilateralism and hegemonism.

Chinses support in Iran’s quest for nuclearisation

During the three days visit, the Chinese leader Xi said that Beijing opposes external forces meddling in internal Iranian affairs and harming Iran’s security and stability and that it will continue to support the early and right resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue. 

This can be regarded as a landmark development in Iran’s going quest for the nuclear deal. When the world shifted its attention from Iran’s Nuclear Peace deal owing to the Ukraine war and other geopolitical crises, China’s commitment to supporting Iran’s peaceful nuclear program will revive the issue for the world. 

China was an active participant in the negotiations leading up to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) signing. It was one of the P5+1 countries that negotiated the terms of the deal with Iran, and its position was important in helping to bridge the gap between the United States and Iran. 

However, China’s main interest in the negotiations was to protect its energy interests in Iran. China is the largest purchaser of Iranian oil, and it has invested heavily in Iran’s energy sector. 

Iran agreed with major international powers in 2015 to limit its nuclear program in exchange for the suspension of crippling sanctions. Still, then-President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the agreement, known as the JCPOA, in 2018 and reintroduced the economic sanctions. 

As one of the permanent members of the UN Security Council and a major trading partner of Iran, China was involved in the negotiations leading up to the JCPOA and has since played a key role in its implementation. 

Besides, China was also concerned about the impact of sanctions on the global economy. The sanctions against Iran had led to higher oil prices and instability in the region, which were not in China’s interest. As a result, China played an active role in the negotiations to find a solution that would allow Iran to maintain its nuclear program while easing economic sanctions. 

Hence, these three days’ visits demonstrated that China has remained committed to the JCPOA and has continued to work with Iran to find ways to maintain economic cooperation, which will be a matter of concern for the West. 

Nevertheless, Iran is looking forward to a 25-year plan for a new strategic relationship with Beijing, which will impact the Middle East because China is a rising power in the region. 

Besides, it also demonstrates that a more consolidated USA and West will pave the way to strengthen these sorts of ties. It is also a huge indication of the future world.

– Saume Saptaparna Nath and Syed Raiyan Amir is a Research Associate at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

Published in the Financial Express [Link] and The Daily Observer [Link]