June 3, 2022 | Breaking Defense

With US distracted, Tehran and Beijing tighten embrace in the Middle East

The US pivot to the Pacific may be all about China, but it misses Beijing’s moves to fill a US void elsewhere, write a team from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
June 3, 2022 | Breaking Defense

With US distracted, Tehran and Beijing tighten embrace in the Middle East

The US pivot to the Pacific may be all about China, but it misses Beijing’s moves to fill a US void elsewhere, write a team from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

With attention focused on the ongoing war in Ukraine, some may have missed that Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe visited Tehran recently in an effort to deepen Sino-Iranian security ties. It is the most recent, but hardly the first, public demonstration of the evolving political, economic and security partnership between China and Iran that presents genuine challenges for the United States and its partners.

The growing Chinese-Iranian embrace in the Middle East underscores the short-sighted nature of the popular sentiment in Washington that the United States should “pivot” away from the Middle East to more effectively compete with China. Instead, Washington should compete by expanding combined military exercises with Israel and Arab partners; fast-tracking regional arms sales [PDF] focused on intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, interdiction, and air and missile defense capabilities; and scrutinizing the impacts of any proposals for additional US military withdrawals from the Middle East.

Wei said his April trip to Tehran was aimed at “improving the strategic defense cooperation” between Iran and China and “push[ing] the relationship between the two militaries to a higher level.” The commander of Iran’s Armed Forces General Staff echoed those goals and announced that the two countries would hold more military drills and exchanges in the future. In January, China, Iran, and Russia conducted a trilateral naval exercise in the Gulf of Oman and northern Indian Ocean, building on a previous drill in December 2019.

When meeting with Wei, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi left little doubt regarding the primary target of Sino-Iranian cooperation, stressing the need to confront “unilateralism,” a phrase China and Iran both employ when referring to the United States.

But the growing Sino-Iranian relationship is not only a problem for the United States. It also creates an array of security problems for Arab states in the Persian Gulf, Israel, and Europe. The increasing economic partnership between China and Iran will provide the Islamic Republic with more resources to proliferate weapons to its terrorist proxies and partners, expand its missile and drone arsenals, threaten shipping, undermine international sanctions, and advance its nuclear program. From the Chinese Communist Party’s perspective, the growing security partnership undercuts US interests in the Middle East and helps secure Beijing’s access to much-needed Middle Eastern oil.

With these motives in mind, following implementation of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, Tehran and Beijing signed a military cooperation agreement in 2016 to boost defense ties between the countries. In March 2021, as it was clear Washington was angling to resurrect the nuclear deal, China and Iran signed a 25-year strategic partnership. The agreement reportedly calls for expanded Sino-Iranian military and intelligence cooperation and will see Beijing invest hundreds of millions of dollars in Iranian energy development and infrastructure. Then, in September 2021, the China- and Russia-dominated Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) unanimously agreed to elevate Iran to full membership.

The United States and its partners are right to worry that Tehran may acquire advanced Chinese military capabilities. Beijing was a significant source of Tehran’s anti-ship missile capabilities during and after the Iran-Iraq War, as well as an early supporter of its solid-propellant missile program through transfers. China remains a key jurisdiction for procurement of goods for Tehran’s ballistic missile arsenal, which US intelligence assesses [PDF] to be the largest in the region. The US-China Economic and Security Review Commission recently found [PDF] that at least one of the ballistic missiles that Iran claimed it used to attack US forces in Iraq was “very likely to have been developed with Chinese ballistic missile technology.”

With a UN arms embargo on Iran already in the rearview mirror and UN prohibitions on Iranian missile tests and transfers slated to lapse next year, the Islamic Republic may look to China to provide anti-access/area-denial capabilities that could threaten US and partner forces and embolden Tehran. That should cause particular concern in Israel, knowing that advanced weapons from China could make a strike against Iran’s nuclear program even more difficult.

Some might argue that Beijing’s desire to not ruffle feathers in Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates might prevent the transfer of such weapons. But such concerns have not prevented China from conducting military exercises with Iran, nor have they dissuaded top Chinese defense officials from visiting Iran. Plus, Beijing has already signaled its willingness jointly develop weapons with the Islamic Republic. In response to any concerns, Beijing might remind Riyadh and Abu Dhabi that they are also recipients of Chinese weapons.

Unlike many in Washington, Beijing understands the strategic significance of the wider Middle East and clearly plans to compete there. Afterall, China established its first overseas military base in Djibouti, just across the Bab al-Mandab Strait from Yemen. Beijing knows the Bab al-Mandab is one of the world’s most important commercial and military maritime routes, enabling vessels to travel from the Mediterranean via the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean and beyond.

Growing Chinese activity in the Middle East stands in stark contrast to the calls of many in Washington who view the Middle East as a wasteful distraction to be jettisoned as quickly as possible. It is true that the United States must scrutinize Middle East deployments and urgently strengthen its military posture in the Indo-Pacific. But before further reducing US posture in the Middle East, leaders should consider the persistent threats in the region. They should also appreciate that the US military posture in the Middle East stands at roughly 45,000 troops, down drastically from 2008, when nearly 300,000 troops were in the region supporting the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan alone [PDF].

Those inclined to brush aside such arguments should consider the fact that problems in the Middle East tend not to stay there, and that those problems often get worse when Americans leave or lose interest. The US withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, which ignored conditions on the ground, catalyzed a series of events that resulted in the rise of ISIS and forced the return of US forces at greater cost in 2014.

Indeed, when America leaves, its worst enemies usually fill the vacuum and gather strength. That’s exactly why Tehran is eager to evict US forces from the region. With the stabilizing American presence gone, Tehran would enjoy a freer hand to export terrorism and dominate its neighbors. An empowered Iran, in turn, would stoke Sunni Islamist radicalization and terrorist group recruitment.

Meanwhile, Arab states see the United States as an increasingly unreliable security partner, one they perceive as simultaneously withdrawing its forces and refusing even to sell weapons that address genuine security threats. Arab partners may come to believe they have little choice but to strengthen ties with Beijing, a dynamic which has already started to happen and could further increase China’s influence and footprint in the region.

Many Americans may be done with the Middle East, but the region is not done with us. US-China competition is playing out in the Middle East and if the United States fails to recognize that and retain sufficient forces in the region, Chinese diplomats and troops will be among the adversaries happily waving goodbye as Americans depart.

Bradley Bowman is senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Zane Zovak and Ryan Brobst are research analysts and Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior fellow. Follow Brad on Twitter @Brad_L_Bowman. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, non-partisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.

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Issues:

China Iran Iran Global Threat Network Military and Political Power U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy