China and Iran: a union that threatens the United States

Beijing and Tehran sign 25-year strategic partnership in trade, politics, culture and security
An Iranian sailor holding the Iranian and Chinese national flags during a ceremony at Chabahar in the Gulf of Oman during the joint Iran-Russia-China naval exercises

AFP PHOTO / HO / Iranian Army Office  -   An Iranian sailor holding the Iranian and Chinese national flags during a ceremony at Chabahar in the Gulf of Oman during the joint Iran-Russia-China naval exercises

In recent years, China has become a key player on the Middle East board. Beijing's sights in the region are set above all on energy companies. In 2015, China became the largest importer of oil, with almost half of its supply coming from the Middle East region.

But not only this. The leak of a document has highlighted the new alliance between China and Iran. The two countries would have signed a 25-year strategic partnership in trade, politics, culture and security.

Already in July, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had announced that Tehran was close to signing a long-term strategic partnership agreement with Beijing, but the details were not known.

El presidente iraní Hassan Rouhani (R) y el presidente chino Xi Jinping (C) revisan a los guardias de honor durante una ceremonia de bienvenida en la Pensión Estatal de Xijiao en Shanghai el 22 de mayo de 2014
PHOTO/AFP - Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (R) and Chinese President Xi Jinping (C) review the honor guards during a welcome ceremony at Xijiao State Pension in Shanghai on May 22, 2014

Both China and Iran have global and regional ambitions and both maintain high tensions with the United States, so they share a common enemy. 

According to The New York Times, the agreement will see China invest a total of $400 billion in Iran's banking, transportation and development, and in return, Beijing will receive a regular, friendly supply of Iranian oil.

This agreement is part of the Belt and Road (BRI) initiative, which Chinese President Xi Jinping aims to extend his economic and strategic influence across Asia and Europe.

This megaproject was launched by Xi Jinping in 2013 and named the 'New Silk Road'. It will cross several countries in the area, becoming an outstanding strategic route, both by sea and by land, to link Asia, Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

PHOTO/AP - El presidente chino Xi Jinping, izquierda, saluda al presidente iraní Hassan Rouhani en la Cumbre de la Organización de Cooperación de Shangai (OCS) en Qingdao, en la provincia de Shandong, al este de China, el domingo 10 de junio de 2018
PHOTO/AP - Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, greets Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit in Qingdao, Shandong Province, Eastern China, on Sunday, June 10, 2018

The Iranian supreme leader, Ali Khomeini, has given the go-ahead to this cooperation agreement, giving the way to President Hassan Rohani and the Minister of Foreign Affairs to negotiate the agreement.

Economic lifeline

This bilateral union between Tehran and Beijing is of particular concern to Washington, especially with regard to the military aspect of the agreement. The greater influence of the Asian giant in East Asia as in Africa has challenged the interests of the United States.

For Iran, this agreement could mean the refloating of its economy, since after international sanctions and liquidity problems, having an oil buyer's guarantee in addition to a large investor has served to calm the stock markets. 

The policy of "maximum pressure" and the sanctions imposed on Iran by the Trump Administration has succeeded in suffocating the Iranian regime.  Record inflation and unemployment rates have made an exit necessary for the Iranian economy. Tehran's shift to Beijing has been one of the consequences and China is making the most of the tensions between the United States and the Islamic Republic.

PHOTO/ Oficina de la Presidencia iraní vía AP – El presidente chino Xi Jinping, a los lados, da la mano al Presidente iraní Hassan Rouhani, al margen de la cumbre de la Organización de Cooperación de Shangai en Bishkek, Kirguistán, el viernes 14 de junio de 2019
PHOTO/ Oficina de la Presidencia iraní vía AP – Chinese President Xi Jinping shakes hands with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, Friday, June 14, 2019

The Iranian media have already begun their pro-China propaganda campaign and it is common to read and hear the narrative that it is in the best interest of the Iranian nation to side with China. But despite the good news for the Iranian economy, China is the big winner of this deal.

Away from India 

After this agreement between China and Iran was made public, the Indian newspaper The Hindu reported that Tehran had decided to exclude India, a historic ally of the Islamic Republic, from a mega railway project that was to connect the Iranian port city of Chabahar with Zahedan, a city near its border with Afghanistan. Iran denied this information from the Indian newspaper and argued that it "had not signed any agreement with India regarding the Zahedan-Chabahar railway".

For the past 20 years, the Islamic Republic has supported Indian projects to establish new trade routes, but New Delhi's decision to stop buying Iranian oil and thus accommodate Washington's wishes. 

AP/NOEL CELIS - El ministro de Relaciones Exteriores de China, Wang Yi (R), estrecha la mano del Ministro de Relaciones Exteriores de Irán, Mohammad Javad Zarif, durante su reunión en la Casa de Huéspedes del Estado de Diaoyutai en Beijing el 31 de diciembre de 2019
AP/NOEL CELIS - Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (R) shakes hands with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif during their meeting at the Diaoyutai State Guest House in Beijing on 31 December 2019

This new partnership will undoubtedly affect India's interests in its main enemy, Pakistan. The introduction of China in the Iranian projects will make Beijing seize the opportunity to connect the port or Chabahar, southeast of Iran, with Gwadar in Pakistan.

These Sino-Iranian ties will redraw the political chessboard in the region and further undermine U.S. influence in the area. The decline and inability of the U.S. to shape the new reality in the Middle East has left a vacuum that is being filled by other powers such as Russia, Iran, Turkey, and now China. Unlike the United States, the Asian giant has adopted an apolitical position in its new alliances, prioritising its economic and commercial benefits more than the presence or not of democracy, or the fulfilment or not of human rights.