Reports and papers

Iran's Relations with China and the West

13 Nov 2009 - 15:14

China and Iran are different quantities. In geography, China is six times Iran: 9,6 vs. 1,6 million sqkm; in demography 18 times: 1.3 billion vs. 73 million; in GDP 12 times: $ 2,645 vs. $ 218 billion. The two asymmetric powers have built a close partnership, short of an alliance since the US completely abandoned Iran after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. China first replaced the US as the leading arms supplier, then as the main supplier of technology and raw materials for Iran's nuclear programme. China helped Iran to cope with American sanctions and after the Iran-Iraq War in 1988 it became a major partner in post-War reconstruction and development. The US thought it had the power to dictate China how to conduct relations with archenemy Iran. Beijing fiercely resisted but after a dangerous confrontation over Taiwan in 1995-1996, China, in exchange for US concessions gave up its support for the Iranian nuclear programme and Russia took over. Once China became a net importer of oil in 1993, Iran soon became its second largest supplier after Saudi Arabia.

During the diplomatic campaign against Iran's nuclear programme, initiated by the EU-3, Britain, France and Germany in 2003, expanded to the Permanent Five of the UN Security Council, plus Germany (P-5+1), China and Russia took a passive position by delaying or diluting sanctions while highlighting the multiple errors and contradictions in Western intelligence. China dismissed American unilateral sanctions against investment in Iran and has committed a total of $ 140 billion to its decaying oil- and gas infrastructure. China is engaged in mega-infrastructure projects across Central Asia, linking Iran with West-China by road, railroad and pipelines so as to diversify away from the international sea-routes dominated by the US Navy. Whatever the outcome of the current negotiations between Iran and the P-5+1, Iran and China are destined to become a new type of asymmetric alliance: global superpower China and energy-superpower Iran.

Willem van Kemenade, Senior Visiting Fellow at the Clingendael Institute, is a diplomatic historian and sinologist. He has been a long-time China- and Asia analyst, writer, lecturer and consultant. He witnessed the controversial presidential election in Iran in June 2009 and its turbulent aftermath in the streets of Tehran. His previous Clingendael publications include Détente between China and India: The Delicate Balance of Geopolitics in Asia (2008) and China and Japan: Partners or Permanent Rivals (2007).