February 17, 2023 | Flash Brief

Chinese President Set to Visit Tehran Following Iranian Counterpart’s Trip to Beijing

February 17, 2023 | Flash Brief

Chinese President Set to Visit Tehran Following Iranian Counterpart’s Trip to Beijing

Latest Developments                                         

Chinese President Xi Jinping on Thursday accepted an invitation to travel to Tehran from Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, who visited Beijing earlier this week with a large delegation. The two leaders called for a lifting of sanctions on Iran and signed almost 20 cooperation agreements, including on trade, agriculture, and renewable energy. Xi’s last visit to Iran took place in 2016.

These high-level visits reflect not only a desire to expand political, security, and economic cooperation between China and Iran, but also an attempt by Beijing to address Tehran’s apprehensions about warming Chinese relations with other Gulf states. In particular, the Islamist regime is concerned about expanding Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) ties with China, particularly after Xi’s high-level visit to Saudi Arabia in December 2022.

Expert Analysis

“China’s diplomatic balancing act is a sign of the Persian Gulf’s strategic importance to Beijing and of a willingness by Xi to walk the tightrope between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Regardless of how Riyadh and Tehran try to tighten ties with China, expect more, not less, Chinese interest in the Middle East in the years to come.” — Behnam Ben Taleblu, FDD Senior Fellow

“China is the main economic partner of every major country in the Persian Gulf, but its key partner in the region is Saudi Arabia, not Iran. The growing trade between the Persian Gulf countries and China, especially Beijing’s energy dependence on the region, means China’s top priorities in the region are the security of these energy resources and reducing tensions.”Saeed Ghasseminejad, FDD Senior Iran and Financial Economics Advisor

China Critical to Iran’s Military Development

China played a critical role in helping Iran with its military, nuclear, and missile programs in the 1990s, which was a pivotal period for the development of Iran’s military-industrial base. The U.S. Treasury Department continues to expose and sanction procurement networks and suppliers with ties to China that support Iran’s ballistic missile program.

In 2021, Iran and China signed a 25-year strategic agreement that promoted military, security, and economic cooperation, further deepening the Iran-China relationship. Iran sees these deals as beneficial given that China has provided Iran with a major economic lifeline through continued oil purchases before, during, and after the 2015 nuclear deal formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

China Works with Both Sides

China is one of a few countries that have very good political and economic relationships with competing sides in the Persian Gulf — the pro-American states of the GCC as well as the anti-American Islamic Republic of Iran. Highly dependent on hydrocarbons from the region, China’s relationship with GCC states like Saudi Arabia has made it Riyadh’s most important economic partner.

China-Iran Relationship Fuels Tehran’s Intransigence

As Beijing-Tehran ties expand, the United States will find it harder to change Tehran’s policies using economic sanctions. The funds Iran receives through the illicit sale of petroleum to China and other customers in East Asia allow it to thumb its nose at international sanctions, avoid negotiating in good faith, and continue funding its destabilizing foreign policy.

Related Analysis

Iran Tightens Military Ties with China,” by Behnam Ben Taleblu

With US distracted, Tehran and Beijing tighten embrace in the Middle East,” by Bradley Bowman, Zane Zovak, Ryan Brobst, and Behnam Ben Taleblu

Biden’s Persian Gulf policy benefits China,” by Saeed Ghasseminejad


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