Arab and international media have touted the Strategic Cooperation Agreement between China and Iran as a “game changer” that will have a significant impact on the distribution of power in the Gulf region.

Visiting the Middle East, China’s foreign minister introduced a broad plan to solve the region’s various crises by targeting five key issues – most notably the crisis in relations between Iran and its Arab Gulf neighbors. Beijing is presenting this initiative as part of a comprehensive approach toward solving the Iran issue specifically, and the broader security crises of the region in general. In this regard it clearly represents China’s view of the Iran issue and the complicated dynamics of Gulf security and inter-state relations. It also reflects the strategic cooperation agreements in place between China and other Middle Eastern states.

Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal in May 2018 before inviting Iran to join a “comprehensive dialogue” represented a crucial moment in the evolution of the Iran crisis.

The Republicans believed that, far from having the intended effect, the nuclear deal adopted by Barack Obama had practically opened the door for Iran to quickly become a nuclear power. The Trump administration also believed that the deal neglected essential issues of contention between Iran and the international community – such as Iran’s missile program and ambitions for regional hegemony – and sought to include these in any future deal with Tehran.

Tehran was entirely inflexible in its response to the prospect of talks, rejecting the notion of dialogue “under duress” with Washington. This opened the door to alternative initiatives and mediators – including regional and international powers, some of which sought a return to the previous deal as a means to end the stalemate, escalating the issue still further. The Russians took the lead in this regard, whilst Pakistan, Iraq, Japan and France sought to take on the role of mediators.

The result of the US presidential race was met with cautious optimism in Tehran, amid expectations that an incoming Democratic administration would immediately revert to the nuclear deal to end the crisis. However, the road back to the nuclear deal remains rocky. Differences between Tehran and Washington persist, including on additional issues raised by the international discourse on Iran. Hence, alternative initiatives continue to be proposed.

The Chinese initiative is one of a series of regional and international approaches to end the Iran crisis. If we assume that Hasan Rouhani’s government – which has become more of a “caretaker government” in its remaining months – fails in its attempt to revive the P5+1 process, the appeal of the Chinese initiative may rise.

The Europeans will wait until after Iran’s presidential elections in June before taking any essential steps, as there is a growing likelihood that hardliners will come to power. According to former Iranian foreign minister, Kamal Kharrazi, it is this faction that Beijing engaged with during the negotiations that led to the signing of the Strategic Cooperation Agreement. History has shown that the hardliners in Iran favor a pivot towards the East above further openness to the West.

It is therefore more likely that the next Iranian government – if conservative – will choose the Chinese solution over those presented by the West, particularly if the Chinese–Iranian Strategic Cooperation Agreement is implemented. Tehran will then presumably seek to push the GCC countries – weary of the strains imposed by the prolonged impasse – to accept the Chinese solution.   

The Chinese initiative will therefore be one of the main determinants of future Arab–Iranian dialogue if the conservatives come to power, particularly given that the hardliners have thus far rejected any direct dialogue with the United States. The volatile regional situation will likely push various stakeholders in the region toward compromise and alternative solutions, particularly with diminishing chances for direct US–Iran talks.

As well as opening the door for regional efforts, this will favor the Chinese initiative, given the strong economic partnership between Beijing and all parties to the regional dialogue. However, before rushing to justify the Chinese initiative, a number of key aspects must be considered.

Firstly, if the multiple reports concerning the content of the Chinese-Iranian deal are to be believed, the arrangement will transform Iran into something akin to a Chinese economic “colony” and, at the very least, elevate Iran’s status to Beijing’s closet strategic ally in the region – an ally in which China plans to invest hundreds of billions of dollars in return for cheap oil supplies and access to various sectors of the Iranian economy. Iran will therefore benefit hugely from the deal, albeit China will remain a major economic partner for the GCC countries.

Second, China is Iran’s second biggest arms supplier and an important source of missile technology. While Russia has provided Iran with some advanced air defense systems, most of the missile technology that Iran currently employs originated in China, including Tehran’s arsenal of offensive ballistic missiles that threaten the GCC countries. According to the information disclosed on the deal, joint military cooperation is set to grow significantly, with China establishing military bases in Iran as well as radar and surveillance stations in the Gulf. Theoretically, these developments will result in China supporting Iran in realigning the balance of military power in the Gulf region.

In a geopolitical context, the Chinese initiative reflects the familiar pattern of intervention pursued by global powers in the Gulf region. Such policies have repeatedly proved futile in establishing strategic solutions to outstanding issues, undermined as they are by hegemonistic motivations, which serve to intensify global competition and political polarization in the Gulf region.

Events in Iran indicate that the resurgent conservative political camp is close to China and maintains a deep distrust of Washington that is likely to increase in the near future. Moreover, all parties to the crisis seem to be desperate for a solution to end the deadlock. All these facts on the ground apparently favor the Chinese solution.

However, we must not forget that what inspires China and other global actors to propose such solutions in principle is the nature of the prolonged impasse. The Chinese initiative, like other relevant alternatives, is built upon the current situation wherein both sides of the Gulf have become extremely weary of the stalemate and are willing to entertain any alternative solution that can end the impasse. The region therefore has two options: determine and adopt a solution based on global approaches and foreign agendas, which largely entails overlooking regional interests; or carefully devise a proposal that rests on common national and regional interests, and push all relevant parties to engage with it. 

Dr. Ebtesam al-Ketbi, President of the Emirates Policy Center. 

Latest Briefs