The Iran-China agreement could be the most important news item in March, signalling that China has achieved significant new strategic gains in the Arab Gulf region. These gains give China considerable influence in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, enabling it to compete with the United States on many issues.
The ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’ agreement that China signed with Iran on March 27, 2021, aims to reduce American hegemony in the Middle East, specifically the Arab Gulf region. China also aims to gain supervisory control over the Strait of Hormuz and to support Iran’s regime to circumvent Western pressure and siege. China’s leaders have been working to achieve this agreement since 2016, when President Xi Jinping became the first Chinese leader to visit Iran’s capital, but this was thwarted at the time by President Donald Trump’s administration vehement opposition to the agreement. It also appears that China’s commitments have different ‘strategic exits’ built into the agreement to protect Beijing’s investments and allow it to play a far greater geopolitical role at the regional and international levels.
The importance of this agreement also lies in its timing, the nature of its provisions, its lengthy duration, the vast sums of money involved, and its potentially far-reaching consequences regionally and internationally, especially given China’s desire to expand its political and economic influence in the Middle East and to allow Iran to participate in its strategic commercial ‘Belt and Road’ initiative in order to reach European markets.
The Chinese foreign minister made a whistlestop tour of the Middle East last month (March 2021), visiting several countries, including Iran. The most critical part of this trip to the region by the Chinese foreign minister, however, was his time in Iran where he signed the ‘comprehensive strategic partnership agreement’ with his Iranian peer. Under the new agreement, China will invest in Iran’s ailing economy, burdened by years of sanctions, while China will get control of the Iranian oil and gas sector. During his visit, the Chinese foreign minister also pointedly noted that “China strongly supports Iran in protecting the regime’s sovereignty and its national dignity against any external threats.”
Under the 25-year agreement, the two nations will enhance comprehensive cooperation in the economy, military, security, and health sectors. According to the strategic partnership agreement, China will invest $400 billion in Iran with the two nations seeking to change the “rules of the political game” through the pact amid US and Western sanctions on Iran.
If the new agreement is implemented, it could profoundly affect bilateral, regional and international relations, with the expansion of Sino-Iranian relations having massive strategic consequences for the Middle East. Although Iran is not one of the most developed and best-known powers, it enjoys human, geopolitical and energy-rich resources, many of them located in the impoverished Ahwaz region whose Ahwazi people see none of this vast wealth. Iran’s geographical location extends over the Arabian Gulf and the Bab al-Salam Strait, with Iran also playing a geographical bridging role linking Iraq with Pakistan. More importantly, Iran wants to help China dominate the economies of all the nations surrounding the Arabian Gulf, from Iraq to Pakistan, in order to expand to other countries in the Middle East and North Africa.
China has also strongly objected to US sanctions on Iran, whose regime believes that the new agreement will help revive the collapsed Iranian economy, with cooperation between the two nations being essential for implementing the nuclear deal and potentially forcing Western countries to return to the 2015 agreement. There is no doubt that Iran will manage to evade US sanctions through Chinese investment in the Iranian economy, including in its military and security sectors.
The Sino-Iranian ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’ covers a variety of economic activities from oil, gas and mining to the promotion of industrial, military and security activity in Iran, as well as cooperation in the fields of transportation, agriculture and health. This investment will help to circumvent the US blockade on the Iranian regime, with Iran wishing, through its agreement with China, to continue its policy of destabilizing the region’s security and stability via the use of its militias and puppet governments.
Impact on the US in the Middle East
The primary geopolitical and security dimension of the Iran-China 25-year strategic agreement is to confront and reduce the role of the US, Europe and their allies, including some Arab countries and Israel, since China will fully dominate the Iranian maritime borders in the Arabian Gulf.
As mentioned above, the deal aims to massively expand China’s influence in the Middle East and undermine American efforts to maintain Iran’s isolation through economic, military and security investments. The agreement also incorporates Iran into the Chinese ‘Belt and Road Initiative’, an infrastructure plan valued at trillions of dollars through which China aims to build a vast network of infrastructure projects extending from East Asia to Europe in order to become a global power in competition with the United States.
These developments come at a turning point when China and the United States have become embroiled in several geopolitical complications, including the Iran nuclear agreement (known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or the JCPOA), from which the United States withdrew in 2018 as part of the “maximum pressure” campaign launched by the US administration at the time against Tehran’s regime.
Although the terms of the new Sino-Iranian agreement have not been made public for fear of adverse reaction from Western powers, it seems to be primarily economic in nature, calling for $400 billion in Chinese investment in Iran over 25 years in exchange for a number of benefits for China, such as lower Iranian oil export prices. China will support several projects in Iran, including major infrastructure programs such as airports, railways, subways, telecommunication projects, information technology, banking, ports, and free trade zones in Ahwazi locations such as Abadan and Jesem (Qeshm Island), as well as Balochi city of Chabahar. The draft agreement also called for deepening military cooperation between the two nations, including joint military training and exercises, joint research and weapons development and intelligence-sharing. Several Iranian officials such as MPs and political figures said that “the agreement includes many issues in which China will fully dominate Iran.” China is also seeking, through the agreement, to confront the United States and the West in the Middle East, as it seeks to expand its influence over other countries in the region.
The leadership in Tehran is also keen to take advantage of the expiry of the UN agreement that had banned the export of Chinese and Russian weapons to Iran, which opens up the possibility of holding joint military exercises and large arms transfers in the future, as China’s new weapons, missiles and aircraft will become a more attractive source for the Iranian regime.
China will provide Iran with modern and extensive military facilities such as modern missiles, with many Chinese military advisors to remain in Iran to teach Iranian military forces and the Revolutionary Guards how to protect the regime from any threat. In return, Iran also promised China to force Iraq to join the agreement to distance Iraq from the West and the Arabs. It is worth noting that the former Iraqi Prime Minister, Adel Abdul-Mahdi, signed a deal with China, but the Iraqi parliament has not supported the agreement so far due to public unhappiness with it in Iraq and American pressure, as well as pressure from other regional countries.
The Chinese-Iranian agreement definitely represents a significant shift in the two nations’ strategic positions against the United States, its Western allies, and the Gulf states. During his meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, the Chinese Foreign Minister made it clear that “China strongly supports Iran in protecting its sovereignty and national dignity.” The Chinese minister’s statement, however diplomatically phrased, is a direct challenge to US policy against the Iranian regime, and its support for extremism and terrorism in the Middle East. The agreement may undermine American influence on Iran before the expected negotiations on the nuclear deal.
China’s approach to the region aims to use Iran’s regional power to expand economic ties with neighbouring countries such as Iraq and Syria. In fact, China is seeking to include Iraq, Syria, and Yemen (via the Houthis) in the agreement, so that China can expand to other countries in the Middle East and North Africa. There is no doubt that China seeks to threaten the effective European role in Africa by controlling the entire Middle East and North Africa region, through which it aims to gain control over the global economy by controlling the Arab Gulf region. The Chinese-Iranian strategic partnership will also affect neighbouring regions, including South Asia, through economic, military and security control of the Arabian Gulf. Through this approach, China seeks to undermine the American role in the whole Middle East region and perhaps in South Asia (by controlling the Bab al-Salam Strait in the Arab Gulf) and East Africa. The agreement also attempts to target and undermine the US regional role through Iran’s terrorist militia like the Houthis in Yemen.
Impact on Strait of Hormuz
The 25-year comprehensive strategic cooperation agreement between China and Iran is a major achievement for the two regimes and will have long-term implications for the geopolitical balance of the Gulf and the region as a whole.
The agreement, which will allow China to deploy 5,000 security and military personnel on Iranian soil in the Ahwazi city of Jask, will change the rules of the game at the regional and possibly international levels in the coming period if international pressure does not stop the agreement. The agreement will allow China to be present in the Arabian Gulf. In return, Iran would gain access to Chinese technology and investments in its weak infrastructure. The two regimes will invest in an industrial free zone close to the Strait of Hormuz.
There is no doubt that cooperation between China and the Middle Eastern countries is neither new nor recent. However, what distinguishes the Iran-China agreement from others is that both regimes have international and regional ambitions that threaten regional and global stability. Each side seeks to confront the United States and its European, Arabs and Israelis allies. As has been shown, there is a security element in the agreement related to the military aspect between Iran and China targeting the US and European role in the Arab Gulf region and the rest of the Middle East. Indeed, China’s growing influence in East Asia and Africa has challenged Western interests, and the Middle East is the next battleground in which Beijing can challenge the US and European role – this time through Iran.
The agreement gives China tremendous new strategic leverage in the Gulf region, with the Gulf possessing about a third of the world’s oil supplies and 40% of the global gas resources, which is most important to Asia’s oil imports. No country can ignore the fact that this agreement massively expands China’s military, security and economic influence in the Arabian Gulf, as well as increasing the chance of linking China’s interests with other countries through Iran, such as Iraq and Syria. China will probably continue in its efforts to control all the regional countries in order to control the Gulf and undermine the US’ role there, and ultimately to control the world economy.
As also mentioned above, the agreement gives China access to building a naval base in the Jask port. There is no doubt that the Chinese presence hinders India’s efforts to develop Chabahar port, which China will use in its pursuit of economic, military and security relations with Pakistan to establish a Chinese axis extending from Pakistan to Iraq in the near future.
A greater Chinese role in Iran also gives China a stronger potentially role in exploiting its ties with Pakistan and its investments in Pakistani ports and transport routes to Central Asia. It also gives China more ability to expand in the Middle East and North Africa through Iran’s control of the sovereignty of Iraq and Syria and the presence of the Houthi militia in Yemen. China sees Iran as an appropriate opportunity to expand its influence in the region through economic, military and security control in the Arab Gulf region by signing the agreement with Iran’s regime.
China has effectively taken control of many Iranian economic sectors that extend over the Arabian Gulf, such as ports, airports, and industries. There will also be far greater cooperation between China and Iran in the fields of oil and gas, minerals, maritime borders, fisheries, rivers and marshlands.
In the near term, Iran’s strategic proximity to China will enhance Iran’s regional and military strength as the regime challenges American and Western power in the Arabian Gulf region. For China, the agreement could help ensure its energy security. The Arabian Gulf provides more than half of China’s energy needs. In return, China delivers billions of dollars to the Iranian regime, as the regime’s economy revives once again and will undoubtedly bring even greater chaos, war and destruction to the region.
Through the new agreement, which allows China to play a far more pivotal role in one of the world’s most important geopolitical regions, Sino-Iranian ties will inevitably reshape the region’s political landscape favouring Iran’s and China’s regimes as both seek to undermine American and European influence.
With the agreement effectively handing China control of the Bab al-Salam Strait (Hormuz) through its military, economic and security presence there, it will mean the economy of the Gulf region will be linked to Chinese companies. Given all these factors, it is clear that, through its vastly increased military, economic and security presence, China will challenge the position of the United States and European countries in the region surrounding the strategically vital Strait of Hormuz.
In conclusion, cooperation between Iran and China and the institutionalization and strengthening of these relations under the terms of the new 25-year roadmap could have far-reaching strategic implications for regional and global security and stability, with China seeking in the near future to undermine the US presence in many regions worldwide.
For China, Iran is an essential ally in its geopolitical ambitions, while for Iran, the Chinese partnership could be the beginning of a thoroughly comprehensive new chapter in its history, enabling it to continue to support chaos and havoc in the region by supporting terrorist militias such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, Shiite militias in Syria, terrorist militias in Iraq and the Houthi terrorist militia in Yemen. Iran also seeks through these militias to form a powerful triangle to control the Middle East, while China sees Iran as an excellent ally to support its projects through these alliances to undermine the American and European role in the Middle East, the Red Sea and North Africa. More importantly, the Chinese and Iranian agreement opens the door to many future military initiatives for China regionally and internationally, and for Iran regionally.
There is no doubt that the increasing cooperation between Iran and China- which provides Iran’s regime with a vital economic lifeline amid US sanctions – is leading to deepening China’s influence in the Middle East and undermining US efforts to keep Iran isolated by controlling the economic lifeline in the Arabian Gulf.
The Iranian economy will recover to some extent due to the agreement with China. This economic improvement will lead to more chaos in the Middle East through the Chinese and Iranian alliance, as both have a malign strategy and goals, especially in the Middle East. Many Arab countries, along with Israel, will face the Iranian threat to their own borders if the Chinese and Iranian agreement is implemented.
The agreement will also put Americans and Europeans in a difficult position diplomatically and politically, and will even imperil their future military presence in the Middle East. Likely, the Western powers and their Arab allies in the Middle East, Israel should reject the agreement and continue to block Iran economically, politically and on the security level. They should strenuously oppose China’s efforts to help Iran spread chaos in the region by countering Iran’s activities.