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The Sino-Iranian Tango

Why the Nuclear Deal is Good for China

An Iranian woman wearing traditional costume walks past at the Iran Pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo, June 11, 2010. Aly Song / Reuters

The recent nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 countries (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) will have major implications for security in the Middle East. But the impact of the deal will be much wider. 

Just how wide was demonstrated by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who, even before the official press conference announcing that the agreement had been concluded, declared that the deal obviated any need for NATO missile defenses in Europe, which have long been a point of contention between the United States and Russia. The deal will also likely lead to billions of dollars of investment by India in Iran’s southern port of Chabahar, long-awaited progress on a gas pipeline from Iran to Pakistan, and perhaps even the provision of Iranian gas to a Europe eager to reduce its energy dependence on Russia.

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani shakes hands with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping before the opening ceremony of the fourth Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) summit in Shanghai, May 21, 2014.

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani shakes hands with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping before the opening ceremony of the fourth Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) summit in Shanghai, May 21, 2014.

Mark Ralston / Reuters
The biggest impact of all, however, may be on China. Iran and China have long-standing ties that are free of the historical baggage that complicates Tehran’s relations with Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Modern Sino-Iranian relations predate U.S. President Richard Nixon’s opening to China, and China has been an indispensable security partner to Iran, including by supplying it with arms and, as Orde Kittrie noted in another article for Foreign Affairs, by providing it with key nuclear components.

Thanks to the two countries’ historically close relations and their mutual suspicion of the United States, many well-regarded China scholars expected China to play a spoiler role in the talks. But by all accounts, Chinese involvement was constructive. Beijing’s approach may have been motivated by a desire to shape a diplomatic outcome to head off either of two undesirable outcomes: a U.S.-Iranian war that could endanger China’s oil imports from the Persian Gulf or a U.S.-Iranian rapprochement that could leave that waterway ringed by American partners. Like Iran, China also likely sought the reversal of American sanctions, which

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