The blossoming of Sino-Iranian relations

Iran continues to defy western pressure and assert its interests in the highly strategic and vital region of the Persian Gulf —which supplies 40 per cent of the world’s energy resources — as well as the greater Middle East and Central Asia. Sino-Iranian relations, which have grown steadily stronger are entering a critical stage, and the west will have to address the emerging alliance between these two revisionist powers.

In recent years China stepped up its rhetoric as it wielded more political power, thanks to three decades of relentless economic growth and persistent military modernisation, and openly challenged the century-old liberal international order led by the west. While China was at the forefront of calls for the restructuring of the global economic system, it showed little inclination to utilise its newly-gained clout for more security-oriented ends, such as reigning in Iran’s nuclear programme.

Thanks to the increase in oil prices in recent years, Iran has been able to amass a whopping $100 billion or so in sovereign wealth funds. Iran is projected to be among the 25 largest economies in 2009-2010.

Investment deals
Unlike western countries, Beijing has been relatively uninvolved in the politics of the Middle East, but as China’s reliance on energy imports grows, there is little reason for it to remain silent on developments in the Persian Gulf. Last year saw significant developments in Iran-China relations: political ties deepened while economic transactions continued to surge. China signed energy investment deals with Iran worth more than $ 8 billion.

If one visits Iran today, traces of the flourishing of Sino-Iranian relations are visible everywhere. Chinese contractors, engineers, and workers comprise the majority of visitors to the country.

The beginning of 2010 was even more significant for relations between the two countries. In January, Beijing sabotaged the P5+1 talks by opposing any new sanctions and sending a low-level representative to the discussions, signalling its disagreement with any serious efforts to further isolate Iran. In the Munich conference in February, Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi explicitly articulated his country’s intention to block any additional sanctions against Iran.

A week later, the US and even Russia rebuked Iran after it announced plans to escalate its uranium enrichment process to 20 percent purity and above. China again stepped in and called for more diplomacy --meaning, it would tolerate no sanctions that could compromise its heavy investments in Iran.
The Iranian regime has not only survived US sanctions, isolation, and threats but has also managed to enhance its influence in the region. Tehran, with its vast influence and regional connections, is now arguably the main key to resolution of the region’s problems, from the civil wars unfolding in Iraq and Lebanon to the security challenge of the Persian Gulf. It is hard to imagine any of them being resolved without its cooperation if not blessing.

Iran is a vital international player beyond the Middle East, mainly because of its geostrategic position in the energy-rich Persian Gulf and Eurasia. It boasts the second largest natural gas reserves in the world and the third largest reserves of oil, which make it a potential future energy superpower.
Particularly in the past three years, China has been the major investor in Iran. Despite the sanctions already in place, trade between the countries grew by 35 per cent in 2008, to USD 27 billion.

Iran, for its part, needs China to help vitalise its oil and natural gas industries, which have been hurt by existing economic sanctions against top companies that invest in Iran.
The growing cooperation between Iran and China is not entirely opportunistic. Historically, the two countries have much in common: both have long resented western interference in their region and in their internal affairs while defending their revolutionary gains against growing pressure from both within and without.
The spectacular burgeoning of Sino-Iranian relations poses a clear challenge to the US and its superpower status in the world. The combined strength and influence of China and Iran has consistently exposed the limits of American power and the efforts to isolate Iran for defying western pressure over Tehran’s nuclear programme.
It is increasingly evident that the US is still grappling with these seismic shifts in global politics and has yet to develop a coherent and comprehensive policy to manage if not contain the growing ties between these two ancient Asian powers.

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