The China-Iran Strategic Partnership: 40 Years in the Making

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The China-Iran Strategic Partnership: 40 Years in the Making

The Iran-Iraq war kickstarted the China-Iran partnership. Understanding that history provides valuable context for the relationship today.

The China-Iran Strategic Partnership: 40 Years in the Making

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, left, and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, right, attend a meeting, in Tehran, Iran, Saturday, March 27, 2021.

Credit: AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi

The Middle East continues to be one of the most dynamic regions of the world as it undergoes economic, geopolitical, and security changes influencing not only countries in the Persian Gulf, but also global powers that are vying for influence. Relations between Iran and China are key driver in the changes currently underway.

Cooperation between these two nations is not new and has been developing in its current context since the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). Their pragmatic friendship took root during this war, establishing the foundation for a partnership that today is strengthening Iran’s economic and regional position and gives China a strategic foothold in the Middle East. This is immensely important within the context of China-Iran relations, and within the broader framework of China’s challenge to U.S. hegemony.

China’s growing influence coupled with its Belt and Road Initiative have major strategic implications as Beijing seeks to link its economic, geostrategic and security interests. Nowhere is this more evident that its relationship with Iran, as it helps China enhance its points of interest and link the Middle East, Central, and South Asia together. It also gives Iran a much-needed boost to its dire economic situation as its population continues to grapple with financial and public health challenges. The growth of the China-Iran relationship established during the Iran-Iraq War will not only reshape the political landscape of the Middle East, it will also strengthen each government’s position within their respective country.

The Iran-Iraq War

With China’s growing influence in Africa and East Asia, its enhanced position in the Middle East adds another dimension to its challenge to U.S. hegemony and its global reach. In particular, China’s relationship with Iran is a strategic partnership that is key to China’s advancement in the region. This has been true for over four decades. Today the depth and scale of China-Iran relations evoke special interest on regional and global levels.

The seeds of their modern relationship were planted during the Iran-Iraq War. This war provided an opportune moment for China to take advantage of and lay the groundwork for economic growth and political influence in the short and long terms. The Iran-Iraq War, coupled with Iran’s international isolation during that period, created a landscape in which Iran needed to work with any partners that would help the nation both in a war context and to meet its basic needs.

The intersection of Chinese and Iranian interests and the strategic framework for their partnership during the Iran-Iraq War developed their mutually beneficial relationship despite a complex global landscape. It established the roots of their partnership on a long-term basis, helping China with its long-game approach.

To understand the complexities of China-Iran relations today and its trajectory, it is essential to look back at this war and the political, security and economic nuances that established the foundation from which these two countries are strengthening their positions today.

In the 1980s, the mood in post-Maoist China was one of cautious hopefulness filled with a fervent desire for progress and modernization. This resulted in the 1980s becoming a decade of concealed yet dramatic expansion for China in the Middle East. The Iran-Iraq War provided an opportunity for China to plant the seeds of its economic and political influence, which would come to fruition some 40 years later.

How this was done is very important. China’s pragmatic post-Maoist leaders used the Iran-Iraq War to enter the international arms market and cultivated strategic diplomatic relations with key regional players including Iran, helping China expand its reach politically and economically. However, its reach extended beyond the arms market, especially with Iran, as Beijing established the groundwork for a long-term relationship. Interestingly, while the Chinese government had expressed concern over the Iran-Iraq War and stated China’s strict neutrality with the conflict, Beijing also strategically utilized the war to its advantage, maintaining relationships with both sides as it lay the foundation for its later endeavors. This approach allowed China to develop relationships with both Iran and Iraq.

The Chinese policy was aimed at challenging Soviet strategic stature in the region, strengthening China’s claim to Third World leadership and positioning itself for a lucrative share of post-war economic opportunities. It was playing the long game. To this end, China successfully courted and sold arms to both Iran and Iraq as part of a larger strategy to compete for economic and political influence in the Persian Gulf. It ultimately became the world’s fourth largest arms supplier, after the Soviet Union, United States, and France. From 1983 to 1989, China sold Iraq over $5 billion worth of arms. It was also a major arms supplier to Iran. In 1985 alone China and Iran signed a $1.6 billion agreement in which Iran was to receive fighters, tanks, heavy artillery, multiple rocket launchers, and surface-to-air-missiles.

China’s covert strategy proved to be highly beneficial for Iran as the two developed an active partnership cooperating across a spectrum of political, security, and economic interests. During this war, $12 billion in Iranian assets were frozen, the country was under U.S. sanctions as a result of the hostage crisis, and it was internationally isolated. Iran’s close relationship with China was vital for its interests.

China-Iran relations were also essential from an economic perspective, their trade relationship was so extensive that Iran became China’s number one trading partner in the entire Middle East. This mutually beneficial relationship was extremely important for Iran as it grappled with issues related to the war and other economic and political challenges.

Moreover, throughout the war, diplomatic exchanges between the two countries increased, such as a visit to China in 1985 by Hashemi Rafsanjani, the speaker of the Iranian Parliament at the time. China’s diplomatic efforts in the region were extensive, as was evident when it acted as a go-between hosting high-level delegations from Iraq and Iran to bring the war to an end. This strategy was highly beneficial for China, as it gave Beijing credibility and a strong foothold in the Persian Gulf to quietly strengthen its political and economic situation.

Relations Today

Given their 40-plus year relationship, China and Iran believe in the strength and durability of their partnership and sustained cooperation working toward their mutual interests. While rapprochement between the two countries grew gradually out of wartime necessity and economic needs, their increased diplomatic ties helped foster a strategic relationship that today is vividly clear in Iran’s recently-approved bid to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the 25-year strategic agreement between Iran and China, and Iran’s participation in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The strategic partnership, in particular, will expand the scale and scope of China’s influence in the region, while also easing the economic strains that sanctions and international isolation have placed on Iran. Each aspect of this agreement is directly linked to the goals and strategic intentions of Xi Jinping’s BRI, as Iran’s centrality in the Middle East and political power in the region will prove vital to the initiative’s success. In its current state, the China-Iran partnership is integral to the both sides: to China, it represents the  progression of the BRI in the Middle East, and to Iran it is the key to the success of a heavily sanctioned Iranian economy. The partnership also advances shared Iranian and Chinese interests by posing a challenge to U.S. hegemony.

Their relationship will continue to flourish along key strategic lines, tilting the strategic chess board to their benefit as their agreements will strengthen economic, political and defense ties between the two countries. From a Chinese angle, strong ties with Iran will help China expand its influence and promote its geopolitical interests in the Middle East, Central Asia, Pakistan, and elsewhere in the short and long term.

However, some Iranians have been cautious in their view of Iran’s relationship with China, arguing that it is more beneficial to China than Iran. Some have gone further, equating it with the 1813 Treaty of Gulistan and 1828 Treaty of Turkmenchay, under which Iran ceded parts of its territory in the Caucasus to Russia. These treaties have become a symbol of defeat to many Iranians. Nonetheless, Iran’s relationship with China, including the recent cooperation agreement is a win for Iran. It will likely strengthen the country on multiple levels, including its negotiations with the U.S. and others in the long term.

Given the breadth and scale of influence that this relationship has on Iran, China, and the region it is important to understand its modern context. Unpacking the influence of the Iran-Iraq War on current trends and Iran’s and China’s long game, is an important facet in developing a comprehensive conceptual framework of the current landscape.