Fan Hongda, a professor at the Middle East Studies Institute, Shanghai International Studies University, weighs the pros and cons of the agreement and what it means for all its stakeholders.

Iran PressAsia: Following the 25-year cooperation agreement was signed recently between China and Iran, the West and countries in the Middle East are alarmed by what closer China-Iran ties could mean for their interests, while the Iranians and the Chinese have different reactions to the news.

China-Iran relations are currently a hot topic among the international community and the countries concerned. On 27 March, Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif signed a 25-year cooperation agreement in Iran.     

In January 2016 when Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Iran, both countries agreed to put consultations and discussions aimed at concluding a bilateral 25-year Comprehensive Cooperation Agreement on their agendas. The agreement is finally signed after more than five years.  

A natural partnership

The signing of the agreement is not a surprising development. Historically speaking, both countries are influential powers in the world and have never once clashed with each other. Over the past century and more, China is one of a few major powers that have never invaded or harmed Iran. Since diplomatic relations were established in 1971, China and Iran have maintained friendly relations even when Iran was sanctioned by the international community.

In the 1990s, China needed Iran’s friendship and help as China’s demand for foreign oil and other energy resources had greatly increased along with rapid development in its economy and society. Chinese policymakers placed much attention on Iran, a major oil-producing country. As the rapidly developing China is confronted with even more challenges in the 21st century, it has launched the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to forge its development path. Whether in terms of its geographical location or influence, Iran is one of China’s key partners in the BRI. At the same time, China is also Iran’s key partner.

Over the past forty years, Iran’s relationship with major Western powers and regional powers such as Saudi Arabia and Israel has not been ideal. Long-term international sanctions have also dealt a heavy blow to its development. The country badly needs to find a new impetus in their foreign relations and is increasingly looking to Eastern powers, including China, in that regard.  

Iran stands firm on ‘Look East’ policy

Under former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s 'Look East' policy, more attention was paid to China. In light of the Trump administration’s 'maximum pressure' campaign against Iran, the country had no qualms about further “looking to the East”. But to a large extent, Iran’s 'Look East' policy is no longer just a temporary measure to manage US sanctions but a new and long-term strategy for Iran’s foreign relations. Establishing better bilateral relations with a China that has strong investment capabilities and an independent foreign policy is clearly beneficial to Iran’s development.   

Thus, because of their national interests, China and Iran have been moving closer to each other. While Trump’s so-called 'maximum pressure' campaign against Iran was one of the external factors that brought China and Iran closer together, it is clear that the internal and mutual needs of both countries were the driving force for the signing of the comprehensive cooperation agreement. 

Although the agreement was proposed five years ago, it was not until June 2020 that it came under the spotlight. The Iranian government had passed the draft agreement then, but because the agreement would bring about bilateral cooperation that is especially broad and deep, and hostile international forces worked to sabotage China-Iran relations, the draft invited many opposing views and spawned debates in Iran. On the international front, the US, Israel, and countries on bad terms with Iran also questioned the proposed deal and gave negative comments. 

Closer China-Iran ties worry West and the Middle East 

It is understandable that countries in the West and Middle East such as the US and Israel respectively are not looking forward to China and Iran’s multi-faceted cooperation. To the major Western powers, containing China is now an established policy. It is therefore only natural that they would have negative views about any action that strengthens China’s power or influence. Moreover, Iran is the US and the West’s top target of sanctions in the Middle East.

Whether looking through the lens of major power competition or their relationship with Iran, neither the US nor other major Western powers are happy to see the signing of the China-Iran cooperation agreement. At the same time, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other Middle Eastern competitors (especially enemies of Iran) would not want to see Iran getting stronger through cooperating with China, because they think that a developed Iran would be “terrifying”.

Benefits of the cooperation agreement

Although Iran’s Middle Eastern enemies may be displeased with China for signing the cooperation deal with Iran for now, in the long term, it is likely that the cooperation plan would give a boost to China’s Middle East diplomacy. The crux of China’s cooperation with Middle Eastern countries hinges on enhancing mutual development, and China has always advocated peace in the Middle East. After a protracted period of turmoil, will Middle Eastern countries still reject China’s “peace through development” concept? I believe that the Middle Eastern countries will increasingly understand the value of China’s Middle East diplomacy.  

It is highly likely that the signing of the 25-year cooperation agreement will bring about other diplomatic gains for Iran. At present, many voices in the US are criticizing the government for pushing Iran to China’s side. On account of major power competition, the Joe Biden administration is likely to ease its policy towards Iran.    

In addition, Iran will emerge stronger through comprehensive cooperation with China, making it conducive for Iran to diversify and expand its diplomacy. Middle Eastern countries would certainly value development over the competition in the future. Hence, countries that are able to achieve faster and better development will likely become role models in this region.     

While comprehensive cooperation between China and Iran is beneficial to both countries in terms of national interests, the two countries currently have different views on this. Why is this so?  

Iranians and the Chinese have different reactions

First, this is because of Iran’s diplomatic tradition of “looking to the West”. Some Iranians firmly believe that moving closer to Europe and America, especially the European powers, should be Iran’s foremost foreign policy choice. Second, some Iranians are biased and have negative feelings towards China. Such sentiments have affected these people’s attitudes about comprehensive China-Iran cooperation. Third, some Iranians are deeply unhappy with the current regime in their country, and thus oppose whatever the government supports. Fourth, unrealistic propaganda perpetuated by forces outside of Iran has led some Iranians to believe that Iran’s interests would be damaged by comprehensive cooperation with China.

It is especially noteworthy that among those who oppose or even deride the comprehensive cooperation between China and Iran on international social media platforms, some who claim to be Iranians do not actually come from Iran. 

Without a doubt, Chinese academics also have differing views about the signing of the China-Iran cooperation deal. This is understandable as international relations in the Middle East are indeed very complicated, and some would question China’s deepening cooperation with Iran. Besides, the China-Iran 25-year cooperation agreement is a new initiative in China’s Iran and Middle East policies, and people would need time to digest and understand new things.

However, I have also come across many articles on Chinese we-media expressing views that are inappropriate or even wrong. At present, neither China nor Iran have released the official text of their cooperation agreement. So some of the statistics quoted in we-media commentaries involving the cooperation deal are basically culled from unverified reports released by Western media last year.

Furthermore, it is also inappropriate to overemphasize how the agreement would be of great help to Iran. This is because the development of bilateral relations is based on mutual needs between both parties. During the course of cooperation, emphasis should not be placed on one party helping the other.       

Although China and Iran have signed a cooperation agreement on paper, the actual level of cooperation that will be achieved in the future is still uncertain. Just as in other bilateral relations, China-Iran relations need to be jointly nurtured and developed by both parties.

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