There are some signs that China may be gaining economic concessions from Iran in exchange for giving it diplomatic, and perhaps military and security, backing against regime opponents.
Late in August 2019, as the United States intensified its sanctions on Iran, the Islamic Republic's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif traveled to Beijing to talk to his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi. The intention was to adjust the terms of a putative, 25-year pact the countries signed in 2016, as revealed the following month by the website Petroleum Economist, which cited a clause that foresaw sending 5,000 Chinese troops to safeguard its firms or projects on Iranian territory. Observers also suspected the amendments included Chinese support in the event of a serious threat to the Iranian regime.
Since then, Iranian officials have intermittently denied the pact's reported clauses, or even its existence.
Also around the same time as the Zarif-Wang summit, the head of Iran's Armed Forces Headquarters Mohammad Baqeri visited China, as part of a "defensive diplomacy" that is forging closer ties between two states with radically diverging ideologies: atheist Communism for one, and militant Shia Islam for the other. Baqeri signed agreements whose terms remain unpublished.
This rapprochement comes against the backdrop of Iranian concerns that the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump wants regime change in Tehran. Some observers like CNN's Christiane Amanpour, believed the targeted killing in Baghdad of the Iranian Revolutionary guards commander Qasem Soleimani was an indication of this intention.
China has helped Tehran evade U.S. sanctions, though at a cost to itself.
The talks are in any case in line with Tehran's Look East policy, which gradually took shape in the 1990s and is repeatedly emphasized by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. This has strengthened Iran's ties to — and some would say dependence on — the two main eastern powers, Russia and China. In the decade after a ruinous, eight-year war with Iraq that ended in 1988, some Iranian politicians discerned in China a suitable model for rebuilding and developing the Islamic Republic.
Such relations may be going further today, as observers suspect Iran is practically "bribing" China to assure it of support in case of an emergency, including domestic or foreign pressures threatening the regime's existence.
Since the dissolution of Iran's nuclear agreement with Western powers in 2018, China has helped Tehran evade U.S. sanctions, though at a cost to itself. Penalties imposed on several Chinese firms led others to end cooperation with Iran. One of the penalized firms is Huawei, the telecom firm thought to have sold equipment to Iran that is useful in crushing dissent or protests.
Can Iran's regime count on China to prevent its collapse or overthrow? While discussing security affairs is risky and complicated in Iran, one analyst in Tehran recently broached the situation with caution.
Tehran University professor Mohsen Shariatinia wrote in an item published on July 1 in the local business journal Donya-ye Eqtesad (World of Economy) that while China enjoys "strategic partnership" ties with some 80 countries, these do not tend to entail security commitments. He points out that Iran-China trade has not flourished since the suspension of the Iran nuclear pact, and China didn't reap benefits from the $20 billion it invested in Iran while the agreement was in force.
The academic sees Islamic Iran and Communist China as intrinsically divergent. The 1979 revolution in Iran, he points out, was loudly anti-hegemonic, and alignment with China has proved divisive inside Iran. Indeed some of the formulators of the Look East policy, including "pragmatic" or business-oriented politicians or former officials associated with the late president Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, may be feeling uneasy at its pace and conditions. In theory at least, elections in Iran could change the orientation of its foreign policy. In turn, he points out that providing states with security guarantees is a costly task China may not wish to assume right now. China, he adds, unlike the U.S., is not the crux of a security alliance like NATO.
Shariatinia notes that we are in a "fluid" international setting not conducive to solid pacts. The pandemic has hastened changes in relations that might have otherwise taken decades. The nuclear pact took 12 years to forge, but lasted just two years. His conclusion: Any Iran-China pact should neither be given undue significance, nor dismissed. How a pact is implemented is what really matters.