China’s shift toward Iran can harm Israel, pro-US countries in Middle East - analysis

The way Iran-China relations are shaping up could have major ramifications for Israel and the Middle East.

(L-R) Chinese leader Xi Jinping and his entourage meet with Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, January 23, 2020 (photo credit: KHAMENEI.IR)
(L-R) Chinese leader Xi Jinping and his entourage meet with Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, January 23, 2020
(photo credit: KHAMENEI.IR)

Iranian media is trumpeting the visit of Iran’s foreign minister to China this week and Beijing has recently done outreach and important meetings with a number of countries in the region.

However, the increasing tensions between China and the US, as well as American concerns about Chinese investment in Israel and other pro-Western countries such as the UAE, could lead to US-China rivalry in the region that would have repercussions for Israel and its new Gulf partners. 

According to Chinese media, State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi held talks on Wednesday with Kuwaiti Foreign Minister and Minister of State for Cabinet Affairs Sheikh Ahmad Nasser Al-Mohammad Al-Sabah in Wuxi, east China's Jiangsu Province. Foreign ministers from the Gulf, Iran and Turkey were also heading to China, Reuters said. “Foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain and the Secretary-General of the Gulf Cooperation Council were visiting China between Monday and Friday.”

Iran's foreign minister Hossein Amirabdollahian apparently arrives Friday, January 14. “Amirabdollahian will discuss a 25-year cooperation agreement signed by the two countries, Iran's foreign ministry said on Monday. China became a lifeline for Iran's economy after the United States withdrew in 2018 from a nuclear agreement agreed between major powers and Tehran,” Reuters said. 

In a 3,000 word article at Fars News in Iran, the visit of the Iranian top diplomat was portrayed as important, historic and perhaps a game-changer for the lslamic Republic.

ON THE FACE of it, China wants good relations with everyone. It also wants to increase trade and its Belt and Road Initiative, and stability in the region. That previously meant working with everyone.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic and recent tensions with the US have accelerated some processes in China that could mean Iran benefits from China’s current stance. Washington has become increasingly tough on Beijing’s inroads in countries that America counts as friends.

The US approach is complex. It wants to stop the Chinese movement into strategic areas where it may have bases or sensitive ports in the region. That includes Israel and the UAE. However, it doesn’t necessarily want to build an anti-China alliance system. In short, the US makes demands but doesn’t make commitments.  

China, on the other hand, wants to do more outreach and have a more muscular foreign policy. It already did this in Asia and has made major investments in Africa. Iran doesn’t harbor any negative views toward regimes such as Syria's, whereas Western countries use sanctions and other means to crack down on these regimes.  

Therefore, the pieces in place and the way Iran-China relations are shaping up could have major ramifications.

What are the Iranians saying? 

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian attends a press conference after his meeting with Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, in Beirut, Lebanon, October 7, 2021. (credit: REUTERS/AZIZ TAHER)Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian attends a press conference after his meeting with Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, in Beirut, Lebanon, October 7, 2021. (credit: REUTERS/AZIZ TAHER)

FARS NEWS says that the foreign minister of Iran is in Beijing to talk about the 25-year strategic agreement. Amirabdullahian is meeting his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi. This will build on former foreign minister Javad Zarif’s work with China.

The report in Iran says the document is general in promising a “direction of peace, stability and regional and international development, and therefore it is not in opposition to any third party or to interfere in the affairs of any country. This document is a road map for comprehensive cooperation between Iran and China and therefore does not contain any agreement.”  

The strategic partnership between China and Iran has serious implications for America's strategy of cooperating with OPEC and containing China, Iranian media says. “The West is abusing sanctions to put pressure on countries." China has a “readiness to strengthen its strategic partnership with Iran.” Chinese statements indicate that it is ready to deepen and strengthen its strategic partnership with Tehran, the report says. 

Iranian media says there are other expectations as well.  “China and Iran have a long and deep friendship. Under the leadership of the two leaders, relations have improved significantly in recent years, and we strongly support each other on issues of mutual interest.” The countries are also celebrating 50 years of diplomatic relations and are looking forward to a “new chapter in our friendship.” 

Iran’s new president Ibrahim Raisi “said in a meeting with reporters, in response to a reporter of Chinese state television, that his expectations from the relationship between the two countries [include] good relations with China and there are many capacities between the two countries.

"We will definitely work to revive these capacities and we will definitely have very good relations with China, and the comprehensive plan (document of the comprehensive Iran-China cooperation program) will be one of the documents – and the implementation of this plan will definitely be on the agenda.”  

CHINESE-IRANIAN relations have grown over the years. In 2021, a new plan was finalized for greater ties in a meeting between Wang and Ali Larijani, Iran’s Special Representative for strategic ties with the People’s Republic of China, Iranian media said at the time. Other meetings happened in the Tajikistan capital of Dushanbe during the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit.  

Iran says that Chinese President Xi Jinping was one of the first leaders to congratulate Raisi when he won the election. "China and Iran are comprehensive strategic partners, and this year marks the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries," he said in a message on June 20, congratulating the Iranian.

The presidents of both countries spoke last year. "We are ready to cooperate with China to establish security, stability and tranquility in Afghanistan,” the Iranian said. This was when the US was leaving the country and China and Iran saw possibilities to move into the vacuum.  

Although more positive messages have followed over the last six months, there are no major new developments. The countries talk of being “two great peace-loving civilizations and comprehensive strategic partners that can pave the way for the realization of true multilateralism through strategic cooperation and win-win cooperation." We will "Expand the Belt and Road road map initiative, as well as the Comprehensive Cooperation Plan, and transform inter-regional cooperation into development, stability and peace,” Iranian officials say.

THERE IS hope in Iran that with the “new chapter of relations between the two countries, we will see the promotion and expansion of cooperation in various economic, political and cultural fields, as well as the implementation of strategic partnership,” Fars News said in an interview with an official.  

In this effort, the Iranian ambassador to China Mohammad Keshavarzzadeh has sought to project Iranian influence and encourage anti-American views in China. The new talks will include discussions about the Iran Deal and the Vienna talks that Iran is engaged in. According to Fars, the issue of cooperation with China and looking to the East has always been one that has been criticized by some inside the country.  

The report says that Iran wants to pursue a balanced foreign policy in its approach to China – and does not tie Chinese relations to its relations with Russia. “We have mutual interests upon which we establish relations with different countries, including China, Russia and Western countries.

The independence of the country should not be harmed. Our duty is to protect the slogan of 'neither East nor West.' In the discussion of interaction, we say both Eastern and Western,” an Iranian official said, according to Fars News. The slogan 'neither East nor West' means Iran does not have a permanent orientation in foreign policy to either the West or East, it prefers a middle path.  

Tehran also sees a way to exploit China-US tensions. Officials argue that Iran is a victim of US “unilateralism” and that American policies are “based on coercion and unfortunately the United States is at the center of it...

"Iran and China are on the same path in this direction and are trying to stand against this policy of force and coercion..., of sanctions and pressure and... of depriving and excluding countries from regional arrangements. What Iran, China, and some countries in the South and East represent today is a different view of international cooperation.”

In a sense, Iran wants to work with China on a policy of opposition to the US – and it is seizing this opportunity to do so.  

"The Chinese Foreign Minister also praised Iran's efforts to negotiate with some countries in the region to resolve misunderstandings [there], calling it a factor in stabilizing the region,” according to the Fars News report.

China also appreciates Iran’s position on the Beijing Olympics. Tehran has “condemned the behavior of the US government and some Western countries regarding the diplomatic embargo on the Beijing Winter Olympics. Iran says it is "working to ensure the good and successful holding of this sports event," and Iran has announced the presence of senior sports officials of Iran along with Iranian athletes who will attend the event.

TEHRAN HAS increasingly sought to coordinate with Moscow and Beijing on the talks that are going on in Vienna. Iranian officials have been reaching out to their Chinese counterparts since last year.

"Our deputy foreign minister also held a telephone conversation with Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Ma Zhaoxu on Wednesday evening, December 8, to discuss the Vienna talks and to discuss Beijing's support for the Islamic Republic of Iran's views on important issues such as prioritizing the lifting of illegal US sanctions," Iranian media says. "The guarantee was appreciated by Iran.” 

The long list of important contacts between China and Iran over the last year illustrates Tehran’s hunger for a closer relationship with Beijing. The question remains whether China will be influenced by this and whether it will have ramifications for its relations with other countries in the region. At present, it appears China would support Iran’s talks with Saudi Arabia and other states in which the Islamic Republic seeks to dial back tensions of the previous decade.

But Iran’s role in destabilizing the region through supporting proxy militias, as well as moving weapons to Yemen, Gaza, Lebanon and Iraq, may not be seen as a stabilizing force. Therein lies the question of long-term Chinese foreign policy goals in the region.

A stable Assad regime in Syria, for instance, is one that is not being hollowed out by Iranian militias and bases. Russia tends to prefer an Assad regime that is stable, rather than being eaten away by Iran’s tentacles. A stable Iraq is also one that reduces the pro-Iranian sectarian militias.

The same goes for Yemen and Lebanon.

Economic disaster has befallen Lebanon, at least in part due to Hezbollah’s role. War always looms with Israel. This can’t be a stable region so long as Iran plays a supportive role.

China could therefore also mollify Iran’s harsh view of Israel and encourage a reduction in tensions. The course set in motion by the China-Iran 25-year agreement, therefore, has major repercussions for the region.

This week’s visit is an important point in that new trajectory.