Has the Pomegranate finally Blossomed? Sino-Iranian Relations Three Years after Xi visit to Tehran

By Jacopo Scita - 23 January 2019
Has the Pomegranate finally Blossomed? Sino-Iranian Relations Three Years after Xi visit to Tehran

Jacopo Scita critically examines the state of China-Iran relations in the occasion of the third anniversary of Xi Jinping’s visit to Tehran in the aftermath of the JCPOA implementation.

At the end of January 2016, in midst of his first trip to the Middle East, Chinese President Xi Jinping made a two-day stopover in Tehran. Unequivocally, the choice of visiting Iran in the early days of 2016 was carefully taken by Xi’s entourage in order to deliver what would have been a powerful political message to both Iran and the West. A week after the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), China set itself at the forefront of the new, potentially lucrative, political-economic environment created by the removal of nuclear-related sanctions.

The stopover in Tehran, preceded by a pretentious-but-insightful article signed by Xi Jinping and published in the Iranian newspaper Iran, marked an important point in the history of Sino-Iranian relations. The event highlighted both the ambitions and the limits of a partnership that remains strongly informed by the power asymmetry existing between China and Iran. The full implementation of the JCPOA in January 2016 legally re-opened to the West a market in which Beijing had a sensible positional advantage. Nevertheless, the international developments that occurred in the following three years, especially the election of Donald Trump as the 45th US President, extensively reshaped the regional and global scenario, influencing Sino-Iranian relations deeply.

Xi Jinping’s signed article ends with a brief ode to the pomegranate, a bountiful and prosperous symbol of the historical bonds that links China and Iran since the age of the ancient Silk Road. In the third anniversary of Xi’s visit to Tehran it can be argued that the post-sanctions Sino-Iranian pomegranate has not yet blossomed.

In what remains the most comprehensive work on Chinese-Iranian relations, Professor John Garver introduces the idea of a “civilizational solidarity” that constitutes the ideational framework on which the Beijing-Tehran axis is built upon. As every political narrative, even the civilizational solidarity implies a powerful symbology that ranges from historical events to political images: a shared sentiment of national humiliation, a substantial dissatisfaction towards the current international system, vague Third-Worldist echoes and the recall to glorious imperial pasts. Xi Jinping added to this narrative its very own foreign policy blueprint: the construction of the New Silk Road.

Thus, it is no coincidence that Xi opens his signed article with a long excursus on the historical links between China and Iran, ‘two ancient civilizations and peoples’ that contributed to the original Silk Road and that share 45 years of friendly diplomatic relations based on trust, peace, cooperation and mutual benefit. According to Xi Jinping this encapsulates the Silk Road spirit. Therefore, China acknowledged the genuine commitment to the definition of JCPOA demonstrated by Iran and set the ground for a new era of Sino-Iranian cooperation based on the opportunities given by the post-sanctions environment. In his piece, Xi Jinping not only pictures an idyllic win-win scenario, but he delivers a tempting-but-problematic message of parity. Rather than being defined by the overlap of strategic, political and economic interests, the new season of the Beijing-Tehran partnership would be justified by an illusory actualisation of a past in which China and Iran were peers along the Silk Road. Yet, the most common outcome of illusion is disillusion.

It is naïve to believe that anyone within Tehran’s power circles pretended that any sort of actual parity between Iran, a regional middle power, and China, an emerging global power, existed. However, Chinese sympathetic statements came at a very peculiar time. As a matter of fact, Beijing was Iran’s most important partner during the difficult times of sanctions. Furthermore the diplomatic success of the JCPOA, although being the product of an unpreceded trust building process, did not change the negative attitude of Iranian conservative establishment towards the West. Therefore, despite the existence of a vibrant domestic debate about China and the so called “Look to the East” strategy, Xi Jinping’s will of upgrading Sino-Iranian ties at the level of a comprehensive strategic partnership appeared a valuable assurance in case the re-opening of  the  Iranian market to the West would not bring the expected economic results.

For the Rouhani administration the post-JCPOA scenario looked promising. After ten years of UN sanctions that substantially excluded Iran from international markets, Tehran was ready to re-open its suffering economy to the West, backed by a powerful ally, China, which not only agreed to boost bilateral trade to $600bn, but that saw in Tehran a strategic and historical partner in the making of its most ambitious foreign policy project. In the best scenario, that would have triggered a lucrative competition to access Iranian market and oil. In the worst, the next US presidential election would have produced a new administration ready to dismantle the Iran Deal, detonating a destructive domino effect. On December 8, 2016 Donald Trump became the 45th President of the United States.

In the first two years of his presidency, Trump’s messy and often uncoherent foreign policy had at least two stable cornerstones: strong, all-round opposition against Iran and economic competition with China. The former resulted in a continuous escalation of anti-Iran rhetoric, the appointment of Iranian hawks in pivotal roles within the administration and, most notably, the re-introduction of a unilateral regime of sanctions ultimately aimed to block Tehran’s oil export. Despite many doubts about the success of sanctions in limiting Iran’s regional activities, the Trump administration unilaterally violated the JCPOA, jeopardizing the economic and strategic scenario emerged after the full implementation of the Iran Deal. Unsurprisingly, the European Union, which was predicted to be the major beneficiary of this new scenario, vehemently condemned Trump’s decision. However, nothing more than promising the establishment of an alternative mechanism of payment to help the EU companies to bypass sanctions has been done by Brussels until now. By the other side, China is facing a similar but more nuanced dilemma.

When Xi visited Iran in 2016, China was -and still is- Tehran’s major economic partner and oil buyer. Apparently, Beijing’s biggest dilemma was about backing or not a deal that would have opened to the international competition a market that what was to a great extent a Chinese monopoly. Thus, the choice made by Xi Jinping of playing an active role of mediation in the 2013-2015 negotiations can be explained both as the necessary response to external developments and as the will of adopting a new proactive posture in the global stage. The former is well detailed by John Garver in a recent book edited by Professor J. Reardon-Anderson of Georgetown University. China’s primary interest was avoiding a conflict between the US and Iran that would have disruptive consequences for Chinese crucial assets. The latter responds to Xi Jinping’s doctrine of increasing China’s direct and active involvement in international affairs, promoting the image of a responsible stakeholder able to balance its natural sympathy and closeness to the developing world with the adherence to the existing systems of global governance. Both these rationales reveal a fundamental feature: China adapts its foreign policy activity to the evolution, opportunities, and constraints offered by regional and global contexts, avoiding disruptive confrontations as much as possible and maximising its gains.

Trump’s Iran policy completely changed the international context that brought Xi Jinping to visit Iran and promising a new stage of Sino-Iranian cooperation in the light of the Silk Road project. Furthermore, Washington-promoted trade war with Beijing introduced another crucial contextual variable that complicated the China-US-Iran equation further.

Despite claiming that China abandoned Iran after the re-introduction of US sanctions may be ungenerous, it is quite clear that Beijing’s response to the situation has been as unsatisfying as not surprising. China put much more effort than the EU in the creation of special payment vehicles able to make Sino-Iranian trades easier. However, the effectiveness of this manoeuvre has yet to be verified, especially when they come to oil. The PRC was among the eight countries that received a 180-day waiver from Washington to buy Tehran’s petroleum. Nevertheless, the uncertainty for the post-waiver scenario remains high and problematic since China is an irreplaceable customer of Iran’s most lucrative commodity. Even the ambitious plans launched by Beijing under the Belt and Road Initiative, like the 263-kilometer railway connecting Iran, Turkmenistan, and Afghanistan, are slowed by both the effect of sanctions and the Chinese companies’ infamous delays in delivering projects. Therefore, the news that mostly epitomizes the ambiguity of Beijing strategy is the suspension of CNPC’s investments in the South Pars natural gas project. The South Pars is considered one of the biggest and potentially most lucrative gas field in the region. Its exploitation was granted by Iran to a consortium formed by the French Total and the state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation. Total renounced to its share due to the fear of sanctions in the aftermath of Trump election, being replace by CNPC in what appeared a huge development for Sino-Iranian energy relations. However, in the midst of the trade war, China lacked the political will to develop its investment in South Pars and eventually withdrew its commitment.

Taking the Chinese perspective, the fact that the China-US-Iran equation resulted in the predominance of the Beijing-Washington puzzle in respect of a breakthrough in the Sino-Iranian relations was not unpredictable. China is a rising super power that, in spite of being building solid regional strategies, remains more interested in growing its status in the global stage through an active economic competition with the US. Therefore, Beijing adoption of a competition-based strategy instead of a confrontational one offers a valuable framework to understand the unsatisfying evolution of China-Iran relations in the last three years. In this respect, the recent US accusation to Huawei of covering-up Iran’s sanctions reveals the complex web of political and economic links that put Iran in the midst of the competition between Washington and Beijing. As such, Tehran is likely to remain a top critical issue in the economy of the US foreign policy even after Trump and this makes the China-US-Iran equation the necessary prism through which observe the Sino-Iranian relations.

Doing a critical appraisal of the China-Iran relations in the occasion of the third anniversary of Xi Jinping stopover in Tehran is complex. The context in which the Chinese official visit happened was the product of a quite unpreceded development in the post-1979 US-Iran relations. At the same time, China was entering in the third year after the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative, which has Iran as one of its central hubs. However, this win-win conjuncture was abruptly dismantled by the new-elected US administration and by a regional context in which Iran is at the centre of harsh political confrontations. Nevertheless, the complexity of the Sino-Iranian relations allows to extrapolate at least three general considerations.

Firstly, despite the bittersweet developments that occurred in the last years, China is likely to remain Iran’s most important economic and, at least to some extent, political partner. As recent history teaches, Beijing is the only major actor that massively backed Iran’s economy in the time of sanctions. At the same time, the presence of Chinese goods in the Iranian domestic market remains massive and, arguably, irreplaceable. For Iran, in the age of Trump, looking at Eastern countries, and namely China, as a wider strategic alignment is a necessity rather than an option. Therefore, the Chinese challenge for Tehran is double. By one side avoiding overdependence on Beijing and, by the other, trying to maximise the outcomes of the “Look to the East” strategy. The latter finds in the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation) full membership a goal that Iran should pursue strongly. To sum up, Iran has to lobby for a deeper integration in the emerging Asian systems of governance, becoming an active player with its own defined space of economic and political manoeuvre.

Secondly, the Sino-Iranian relationship is and will remain highly asymmetrical. If this claim is naïve from the mere perspective of economic and political power, it becomes problematic if approached through the narratives that back it. The “Civilizational solidarity” and the idea of an old parity along the ancient Silk Road are an integral part of Xi’s signed article that preceded his 2016 visit to Iran, signalling an interesting attempt of decreasing, through the construction of a tempting narrative, the asymmetry that naturally informs any great power-middle power relation. The timeframe discussed in this article confirms how deeply the pace of Sino-Iranian relations is defined by Beijing. Therefore, the continuous reference to narratives and images that somehow mitigate the existing unbalance is extremely interesting. From the Iranian perspective, a certain level of (constructed) mutuality may be essential to trust China and accepting to build a deeper strategic partnership with it. On the other hand, the PRC’s ambitious foreign policy projects cannot rely exclusively on the promise of a win-win cooperation. The more demanding they become, the more they need narrative constructions in their support, especially in a contested region like the Middle East.

Lastly, China’s proactive role in the JCPOA negotiations is, among many other, an important signal of a new trajectory in Chinese foreign policy. Xi Jinping’s blueprint appears marking an evolution of the historical principle of non-intervention that, since the publication of the “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence” in 1954, informs Chinese relations with the world. China is participating to the life of the international system more proactively, promoting its own goals in the global stage and assuming more assertive postures in regional affairs. This new trajectory may affect the Middle East in a very peculiar way, fostering an unpreceded trilemma for Middle-Eastern actors: aligning with the US, negating any stable alignment with extra-regional powers, or aligning with China. Iran, due to its problematic relationship with Washington and its complex-but-persisting friendship with Beijing, can play a pivotal role in the consolidation of the Chinese position in the Middle East. However, it remains clear that this new blueprint in China’s foreign policy should not be overestimated as a source of direct confrontation with the United States. Arguably, this is even more true in the case of the Sino-Iranian relations.



Jacopo Scita is HH Sheik Nasser al-Mohammad al-Sabah doctoral fellow at the School of Government and International Affairs, Durham University. He tweets as @jacoposcita

Image credit: Ninara via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Disqus comments