These two ancient civilisations have much in common; a desire to prevent western domination of the world; an ambition to become the hegemonic power in their region and a tradition of fierce independence and suspicion of outside powers’ influence on their affairs.
Thanks to these factors and Iran’s continuing international isolation the two states have drawn closer together in the last decade. Tehran has looked to Beijing for military hardware and diplomatic support while becoming a major supplier of crude oil (13% of its imports) and natural gas to power hungry China. Foreign policy types in Beijing are rather keen on the fact that Iran takes up so much of Washington’s attention and draws it away from China. Below the diplomatic fireworks China has been investing in Iran in a big way taking advantage of the void left by the absence of European and US companies. Like other other parts of the globe Chinese firms have been building, trading and investing across numerous sectors of the Iranian economy. However, the United States’ recent rapprochement with Iran could change this cosy arrangement and lead to a new geopolitical balance in the region.
Although it seems unlikely now, the future could see China and Iran becoming rivals. For China ties with the US will ultimately take precedent and they will sacrifice Iranian interests to develop this relationship if it appears worthwhile to do so. For example when under pressure from Washington, Beijing stopped the sale of certain military items and nuclear technology to their slighted ally in Tehran. Another area of contention is trade, like so many other nations cheap Chinese goods have drawn howls of complaints from industrial leaders seeing their margins cut to shreds and politicians fearing the future of their country’s manufacturing base.
The prospect of US withdrawal from Afghanistan and Pakistan should be a plus for Tehran, but increasing Chinese influence in both countries could push Iran out. Even in Iraq, a country Iran has successfully gained a great deal of leverage over at the expense of the US is seeing increasing Chinese influence. This is not so much a diplomatic effort, but stems from the Chinese (state owned) companies appetite for risk and overseas expansion which has resulted in a big corporate presence particularly in the South of the country.
China has also developed stronger ties with Iran’s arch enemy Israel and also with other regional rivals such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia. For now Sino-Iranian ties are solid, but Chinas’ continuing overseas diplomatic surge and geopolitical developments in the Middle East and South Asia will make this a fascinating relationship to watch over the next few years.