Republican candidate Donald Trump unexpectedly won the presidential election. At the beginning, the news was more or less received as a pleasant surprise by both Iran and China. Compared with the more aggressive Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, businessman Trump, who is on good terms with Russian President Putin and has minimal ideological tendencies, seems more poised to increase China-US cooperation in Iran and the Middle East at large. But as Trump revealed his cabinet and had a phone conversation with Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-wen, and as the US Congress passed a bill to extend sanctions on Iran for another 10 years with an overwhelming majority, the once joyful mood in Teheran and Beijing has been gradually replaced by worries and a huge sense of uncertainty.
First, Trump and the tough policy towards Iran advocated by his team of conservative hawks overshadow future US-Iran relations. The markedly improved relationship with Iran and conclusion of the Iranian nuclear agreement in particular has been one of Obama Administration’s biggest diplomatic legacies. The historic accord was described by Trump during his campaign as a ‘disaster’ and ‘horrible agreement’, which he threatened to break. With his numerous absurd comments and inconsistencies, even Iranian strategic analysts did not take Trump’s statements seriously and thought that campaign speeches should not be equated to foreign policy.
However, as the future Trump Administration’s foreign policy team gradually takes shape, Iranians must be seized with anxiety due to its conservative hawkish policy towards Iran. For example, Ambassador John Bolton, former US representative to the UN who was considered for Secretary of State, urged repeatedly that the US help Israel to bomb Iran, believing that Iran is the main threat to international peace and security in the Middle East. More recently, he publicly called on the US to help overthrow the current Iranian regime. Meanwhile, former Defense Intelligence Agency chief Michael Flynn was named White House national security advisor and retired general James Mattis Secretary of Defense. Both are hawks on Iran and both have been describing Iran as the biggest threat to US security. As such, it is not hard to imagine a huge policy setback when Trump’s in power.
The blow actually has come before Trump enters the White House. On Dec 1, the US Senate voted 99-1 to extend sanctions on Iran for another 10 years; the bill had already been approved by the House of Representatives, 419-1. In face of such overwhelming votes, President Obama had little choice but to sign the legislation. It is equally predictable that Iran reacted in an angry and tough manner. An overwhelming majority of Iranian MPs issued a joint statement urging the government to resume nuclear activities including uranium enrichment. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, also warned that reactivation of sanctions on Iran invites retaliation.
Second, both China and Iran hope to maintain and advance the nuclear accord and to respond to the most uncertain new US administration and its new policies with stability and minimal changes to the extent possible. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani once regarded the conclusion of this agreement as a ‘turning point’ in Iran’s relations with the West and hailed ‘new chapter’ in these relations. The deal relaxed US-Iran relations at the diplomatic level, winning Iran a valuable diplomatic space and breaking its diplomatic isolation. Moreover, it has strengthened Iran’s position as a major power in the Middle East geopolitically, and mitigated pressures over the country economically. Iran does not want to lose these ‘dividends’ and needs to maintain the agreement with all its strength. Strengthening economic, trade, diplomatic and strategic ties with China has become an important link in Iran’s effort to deal with diplomatic uncertainties of the incoming Trump Administration.
China took part in the protracted 12-year negotiation as a member of the six countries (P-5 plus Germany) versus Iran, with a deepened level of participation and increased contribution in recent years. China attaches great importance to Iran’s position as an important node in advancing the Belt and Road development framework. President Xi Jinping visited Iran on Jan 23, just one week into implementation of the Iranian nuclear accord. He was the first Chinese head of state to visit Iran in nearly 14 years. During his visit, Xi expressed China’s readiness to strengthen pragmatic cooperation in all fields within the Belt and Road framework. He described energy cooperation as a ballast stone, interconnection cooperation as a focal point, productivity cooperation as a compass and financial cooperation as a booster, urging the two sides to work together to further cooperation in all this fields. In the past year, numerous business delegations have visited Iran, seeking opportunities on the Iranian market after the lifting of sanctions.
In addition, Chang Wanquan, Chinese Minister of National Defense, visited Iran on Nov 14 and signed an agreement with his counterpart, Hossein Dehghan. The two countries vowed to have comprehensive defense cooperation, extensive exchanges in military experiences and full collaboration in training of military personnel. After the US Congress extended sanctions on Iran, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif visited China. At a joint press conference, ministers of both countries expressed determination to safeguard the agreement and advance its implementation. Zarif made it clear that ‘Iran would not tolerate any country’s unilateral action to violate the agreement’. His Chinese counterpart, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, said that the relevant international agreement ‘should not be affected by the changing domestic situation in any country.’
All in all, in the complicated situation of the Middle East, Iran is definitely not a pushover easily bullied by the Trump Administration. Should the US easily give up or violate the Iranian nuclear accord, an agreement reached after years of negotiation and with consent of European allies, it would only be negative for the US in terms of its international image, moral high ground and Trump’s start on diplomatic front. It will be like lifting a rock only to drop it on one’s own feet. Trump would be showing the whole world a US that cannot be trusted. Strategically such move will cost the US from Iran to its say in the Middle East to its alliance with European countries.