Most observers are still trying to figure out president-elect Donald Trump’s likely Iran policy. Whatever it might be as an approach, it will probably be nothing as accommodating as has been the case in the Obama era. And if Washington starts to earnestly squeeze Tehran from January 21, 2017, the Iranians no doubt will turn to Russia and China for protection.
Vladimir Putin’s ambition to make Iran into a Russian satellite state draws plenty of attention from American analysts. It is less the case with China’s long-term plans to turn Iran into one of its key anchors in west Asia. And unlike Moscow – where the glue for closer ties is arguably a convergence of Iranian-Russian interest over Syria’s fate - Beijing is offering Iran a multilayered and yet complimentary set of blueprints that will be hard for Tehran to ignore. The Chinese focus relies heavily on energy, transport, and increasingly, security cooperation.
China’s big plans
In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping launched a highly ambitious plan to integrate the Chinese economy much more closely to key countries in Eurasia. Dubbed the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) project, this multi-billion-dollar initiative is aimed to develop and link up a host of land-based and maritime trade routes in order to provide numerous trade corridors from China to Europe. Chinese investment and companies are meant to spearhead this gigantic infrastructure development that is due to be implemented over a period of 10 to 15 years.
Geography alone makes Iran into a pivotal player in China’s plans. The fact that Iran happens to be a large and hungry market of 80 million people is an added bonus for Beijing and its businesses looking for more market shares around the world.
The Chinese specifically consider Iran an inevitable partner and a conduit to the five landlocked states of Central Asia: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The five states combined represent a market of about 65 million people. The Chinese have already replaced the Russians as the largest trading partner of the Central Asian states. The Central Asians have plenty of energy resources that Beijing craves in return for Chinese goods and services. Meanwhile, Iran is an important alternative outlet to Central Asia and Beijing wants to shape and have a say about Tehran’s policies toward its northern neighbors.
But China is not assessing its options in Central Asia purely through an economic lens. In fact, it has some deep security interests there. Beijing sees Central Asia – a Muslim-majority region but formerly part of the Soviet Union where secular Islam dominates - as a bulwark. In the lands west and south of Central Asia, China is mostly confronted by politicized versions of Islam that it fears.
Beijing fears that radical Islam as it is propagated by some Middle Eastern states will incite China’s own restive Muslim minority that overwhelmingly live in regions adjacent to the Central Asian states. It is no coincidence that China’s greatest push for cooperation with the Central Asian states has come in the area of security and counter-extremism.
In fact, the leading collective body at the heart of Eurasia – the Shanghai Cooperation Organization – began as an effort to enhance security cooperation among the member states. Interestingly, the Central Asian states and Chinado not appear to fear Iran’s avowed commitment to political Islam. They see the Shiite Iranian Islamist version as structurally limiting and largely a bad fit for their Muslim populations that generally belong to the Sunni sect of Islam.
And there are domestic factors in Tehran that are no doubt facilitating China’s Iranian inroads. Hardliners in various corners in the Iranian state machinery – from a minority in the foreign ministry to a majority in the ranks of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) –argue that Tehran should prioritize diplomatic and economic ties with states such as Russia and China over Western states.
This posture is above all shaped by ideological preferences. However, uncertainties about the future of Iran’s relations with the West, which have intensified following Trump’s election victory, are at the moment helping these hardliners make a stronger case for their policy offers. The stage for closer ties is in many ways already set. During his state visit to Tehran in January, Presidents Xi and Rouhani laid the groundwork for much closer relations. The two states agreed to expand trade to $600 billion over a 10-year period while also framing stronger cooperation as part of a 25-year plan.
For sure, cooperation in the energy sector is a big part of it as Beijing remains Iran’s biggest oil customer, but the vision for deeper ties transcends that. Meanwhile, as the OBOR was one of President Xi’s signature foreign policy ambitions, he will most likely remain faithful to it while he is in office. And depending on Trump’s coming Iran policy, Tehran might soon find the Chinese offer of closer ties is the kind of political insurance they cannot turn down.