The United States sent shockwaves through the Middle East and the wider world when it assassinated General Qassim Soleimani on January 3, 2020. Subsequent days saw rising fears of an escalating U.S.-Iran conflict subside, as Iran carefully calibrated its response and the U.S. pursued de-escalation. While an immediate military confrontation now seems less likely, continued U.S.-Iranian competition through proxies and brinksmanship is all but inevitable. For China, rising tensions in the Persian Gulf and the wider Middle East pose certain dangers, particularly regarding energy supplies, but the strategic benefits may outweigh these costs over the long term.
Since ascending to office in 2017, the Trump administration has consistently escalated tensions with Iran. The U.S. voided the JCPOA nuclear deal signed under the Obama administration, unilaterally reneging on its commitments and imposing harsh sanctions on Iran. By April of last year, the U.S. State Department had branded the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) – a branch of the Iranian armed forces – a foreign terrorist organization. The first indications of a U.S. drive toward war came shortly after. Proxy actions, threats, and recriminations continued until Iran downed a U.S. spy drone in June. Against the advice of both former National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, President Trump declined to authorize a disproportionate retaliatory strike. By September, John Bolton had been ousted from the administration, with Trump saying that this was in part due to Bolton’s push for a war with Iran.
Nevertheless, the hawks eventually had their day. In response to what might otherwise be considered an ordinary week in Iraq – disruptive protests at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad and the killing of an American contractor – the administration decided to openly assassinate a powerful Iranian general and a number of Iraqi militia leaders. While the New York Times suggested that Trump erratically opted for the most extreme option presented by Pentagon planners, some insiders privately expressed doubts about this narrative. Indeed, in D.C. it seemed that the small circle of pro-war voices – centered on the offices of Mike Pompeo and Vice President Pence – was in control, while others scrambled to respond to this serious escalation of U.S.-Iran tensions.
Thankfully, voices of reason seem to have temporarily won out in Washington. After Iran retaliated with missile strikes on bases that reportedly resulted in no casualties (though 34 soldiers were later reported injured, contradicting early Pentagon and White House statements), the Trump administration stepped back from the brink of war. The domestic response to the strike against Soleimani revealed severe war weariness, with mounting protests and open talk of draft resistance on social media. Military planners may have successfully argued that the U.S. would be unable to achieve its objectives in a war with Iran despite the extreme costs involved. However, temporary de-escalation – just as was the case in the middle of 2019, when the administration walked back promised strikes on Iran – is not a signal of long-term détente.
China in the Mix
China has had to balance its relationship with Iran with its desire to avoid unnecessarily antagonizing both the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. China is a major importer of Iranian oil and has continued to expand its investments in the country, including through part of the much-trumpeted Belt and Road Initiative. China has also been a longtime arms exporter to Iran and has assisted with its development of military technology. However, Iran is not a strategic ally of China in the same sense that Pakistan is. While Iran is an observer of the Shanghai Cooperation Initiative, it is not a full member. And though China often supports the Islamic Republic in the UN Security Council, it did lend its support to the 2010 round of UN sanctions on Iran. This balancing act has to be understood as a result of China’s desire to maintain its relationships with Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern rivals of Iran, including Israel, while cultivating a low-commitment partnership with Iran itself. Iran needs China much more than China needs Iran – putting China in the enviable position of being able to choose when and how much it provides counterbalancing support against the United States.
Not Many Will Win
Thus, in the event of further U.S.-Iran confrontations, China is unlikely to seriously intervene. China’s muted response to Soleimani’s killing was a signal in this regard. As the proxy struggle between the U.S. and Iran continues, China can continue to tread this fine line and allow its major rival to embroil itself in fruitless conflict. Indeed, stepping back from the brink of war does not mean the U.S. and Iran have returned to the status quo ante. The U.S. killed one capable general but weakened its position in Iraq and the Levant. Within a few years, the U.S. may abandon the military positions it has accumulated while encircling Iran in the long wars following 2001. This, ironically, was one of Qassim Soleimani’s primary objectives.
Future flashpoints will serve as new tests of the unsteady ‘peace’ between the U.S. and Iran. Iran has announced its intention to abandon limits on uranium enrichment, setting up a future showdown over the possibility of its acquiring nuclear weapons. Both the U.S. and Israel could ultimately decide it was in their interest to strike Iranian nuclear facilities, which have been hardened since the Stuxnet attacks, leading to another major military confrontation. Miscalculation in Iraq or the Persian Gulf by either party could, again, serve as justification for war. If domestic leadership or incentive structures change for either the U.S. or Iran, we will see a very different response to the next crisis.
Both continuing proxy conflict and a future escalatory situation present risks for China – and possible strategic advantages. Together, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Iran supply around 30% of China’s crude oil. Disruption to these supplies due to war in the Persian Gulf, including the possible closure of the Straits of Hormuz, would radically increase energy prices for Chinese importers. Perversely, the U.S. would benefit in some ways from this economic pain – oil prices spiking above $70 a barrel would rescue the dying U.S. shale oil industry. The longer and more devastating the conflict, the greater the magnitude of the disruption to the world’s, and China’s, oil supply.
With this significant exception, a deepening conflict between the U.S. and Iran aids China’s ambition of ending U.S. global hegemony. At even a minimal level of escalation, continued contests in the Middle East will draw American attention and resources away from East Asia. In the extent of a more severe escalation, the likely impact on U.S. domestic politics cannot be overstated. Initial surges in nationalist fervor as a result of an open war will give way to the extremes of war exhaustion. A reelected Trump administration would face down massive domestic opposition; an incoming Democratic administration would deal with much the same. In any case, the American people’s appetite for war and foreign engagement will be stretched to a breaking point – we must recall that this is a country that has been at war for almost twenty years.
While conflict does pose greater risks to global oil flows, China need do little more than repeat its strategy during the Iraq War of 2003: be patient, wait, and watch. At a minimum, the U.S. will lose access to some of its strategic outposts in the region and be dealt a bloodied nose. It is sadly likely, however, that some administration will embroil the U.S. in another bloody conflict to serve mercenary domestic interests. As always, it is the common people of Iran, the wider Middle East, and the United States who suffer the fatal consequences of imperial hubris. In a conflict between the U.S. and Iran, there is no possibility of a true victory for either side. The real winner will be those who stand on the sidelines, waiting to pick up the pieces after the combatants have exhausted themselves. Chinese strategists may be thanking the stars – instead of gearing up for hegemonic war, America may simply opt to cut off its own legs.