Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi visited China from Feb. 14 to 16. Iran has been on the anti-American front line in the Middle East for decades and has long been regarded by the U.S. as a regional troublemaker. The relationship between China and the U.S. has been declining in recent years, with the recent balloon incident triggering even stronger mutual distrust and even hostilities. Under these circumstances, President Raisi’s visit was seen by some as a rendezvous of the world’s two important anti-American forces and the rhythm of China and Iran moving further to join forces against the United States.
However, this is not the case. At the same time as the Iranian president’s visit to China, Wang Yi, a member of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China Central Committee and head of the Office of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission, left China to visit France, Italy, Hungary and other European countries and attend the Munich Security Conference to strengthen mutual exchanges. After that, he will move on to Moscow to cool down the Russia-Ukraine conflict and work for a solution through negotiation. Therefore, while China and Iran have a lot in common in terms of fighting against hegemony and power, they are focused at this stage more on tapping the potential of economic complementarity and enhancing mutual economic cooperation.
First, given the current internal and external pressures, Iran wants to enhance its cooperation with China in both economic and strategic areas. Mohammad Jamshidi, the deputy presidential chief of staff for political affairs, made it clear before President Raisi’s visit to China that the visit was aimed at both economic and strategic areas. Undoubtedly, the economic aim should be to advance the implementation of the 25-year China-Iran comprehensive cooperation agreement — signed in March 2021 — in which China pledged to invest $400 billion in more than 10 areas, including infrastructure, medicine, health, science and technology.
Iran is still facing a number of sanctions by the United States and the rest of the West, including a severe financial sanction and oil embargo, and has faced a deepening economic crisis, inflation and currency devaluation in recent years because of the delay in the U.S. return to negotiations on an Iran nuclear deal. As Iran’s largest export destination and second-largest source of imports in 2022, China is naturally the first choice for Iran in strengthening economic cooperation.
Earlier, Iran announced the foreign investments it had received over the previous two years. Chinese investment amounted to $185 million. This is obviously still quite far from Iran’s expectations.
Raisi’s high-level political and economic delegation to China included Iran’s foreign minister, oil minister, minister of economic affairs and finance, minister of roads and urban development, agriculture minister, and central bank governor. In a speech before his visit, Raisi said that one of his objectives was to promote the implementation of the 25-year comprehensive cooperation agreement between the two countries. Reports said the two sides signed 20 bilateral cooperation agreements in the fields of economy, cultural heritage, tourism, intellectual property, communication, information technology, healthcare, eco-environmental protection, agriculture, international trade, health, disaster relief, media, sports and crisis management.
Second, Iran’s “Look east” strategy does not include a so-called China-Iran partnership against the U.S. In recent years, the strategic nature of Sino-Iranian cooperation has often been interpreted by some Western media as a sign that China and Iran will join forces to fight the United States. In fact, the strategic cooperation between China and Iran is a broader expression of conceptual consensus.
China and Iran announced a comprehensive strategic partnership during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Iran in 2016. There are many other countries that have established similar partnerships with China. In an op-ed headlined “Old Friends Are the Best Partners for Future Cooperation,” which was published in People’s Daily on the eve of Raisi’s visit to China.
He said: “Iran is politically independent and able to maintain security and nurture human resources. It has low production costs and boasts abundant energy reserves. It also enjoys geographical advantages in the transit of goods and well-developed industrial infrastructure. All this could be an important factor in strengthening the Iran-China comprehensive strategic partnership.” This shows that it is not Iran’s decades of resistance to the U.S. that are important in the comprehensive strategic partnership between China and Iran.
Of course, as this op-ed suggests, Iran’s strategy of looking east is the direction of Iran’s future cooperation. This is also evident from Iran’s membership in the BRICS mechanism and its efforts to become a member of the SCO in recent years. For China, Iran is an important Belt and Road country and the pivot point for the Belt and Road Initiative in the Middle East.
In his op-ed, Raisi also said that Iran believes BRI cooperation will not only build an international corridor but will also have a profound impact on the civilizational and industrial development of BRI countries.
China and Iran are both ancient civilizations. Their consensus and commitment to the diversity of civilizations, BRI cooperation, multilateralism and the fight against hegemony and power politics can strengthen the solidarity of developing countries and lay the foundation for the expansion of each other’s diplomatic space and the necessary diplomatic cooperation in the international arena.