The role of Iran in the US-China rivalry

BEIJING, CHINA - DECEMBER 31: China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi shakes hands with Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif during a meeting at the Diaoyutai state guest house on December 31, 2019 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Noel Celis - Pool/Getty Images)


To counter the unipolar world dominated by United States, China had developed a limited pragmatic cooperation partnership with Iran in the recent years.  Despite the years of diplomatic and economic sanctions, Iran has deepened its relationship with China. Today, China is the top trading partner of Iran and invests hugely in the Iranian economy. Both the nations celebrated 25 years of bilateral relationship in 2021 which is expanded to different domains of energy, military exchanges, exercises and development. China also enjoys the stability provided by US in the Middle East region as it gives free-ride to China to enjoy its interests of economic gain.

The relationship between both the nations accelerated in the year 2015 when China signed Iran Nuclear deal JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) and in the next year the Chinese Premier visited Iran. This visit is considered as the landmarked since he was the second leader of UN Security Council member to visit Iran after Russian President Vladimir Putin. China during the visit expressed its support to Iran to become the full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and to take the cooperation to the next level in the fields of science and technology, the judiciary, media and investment.

The Sino-Iranian relationship aims to counter the dominance of United States in the Middle East and it will hinder the US to focus on military, diplomatic and economic attention in the Indo-Pacific region which is much more important to China for its national interest. According to many Chinese scholars, the military actions of Iran will prevent US to focus on in the Indo-Pacific region. The US-Iran instable relations will make US busy in the Middle East region and therefore it will provide space to China to implement its expansionist policy in the Indo-Pacific region. To counter the same issue, USA is actively involved in the QUAD forum implicitly aimed to counter the hard power of China in the Indo-Pacific region. Therefore it is diplomatically crucial for China to have ties with Iran in order to counter US in the region.

The Sino-Iranian relationship for Iran will bring economic development and support in the international community under the dominance of US in the region. According to Jonathan Fulton, there are two main factors which promote Iran to have sound bilateral relationship with China. The first is China is the financial lifeline to Iran against the economic sanctions for example in 2017 China’s CITIC Group provided $10 billion line of credit to Iran. The second is CCP as sympathetic to Iranian visions to sustain the contemporary geopolitical order in the Middle East.

Image source: The Diplomat

The economic sanctions on Iran in the recent years have provided opportunity to China to economically exploit the Iranian land for its economic gain. In return, Iran got the economic lifeline through China against such economic hindrances. China is involved with Iran in the categories of energy, mining and transportation. China view Iran as the source of access to oil and other raw materials and also the land to fulfill its Belt and Road Initiative vision. China is the in the hope that if the Iranian economy is normalize against the sanctions then it will be the source of oil and other raw materials. China view Iran as an investment that will not give significant return in the near years but in the multiples in the future. China economically acknowledges the geographical location of Iran with respect to Middle East, Central and South Asia and Strait of Hormuz which is world’s one of the most important oil shipping routes.

China-Iran and US in Afghanistan

Both Beijing and Tehran wants US dominance in Afghanistan to get null and void. Both the nations wants US to withdraw its all military forces from Afghanistan as it may cause threats to their national security. Beijing and Tehran is accused by Washington to supply arm weapons to Taliban. US in 2017 accused China of selling HN-5 anti-aircraft missile to Iran which Iran passed on to Taliban. Beijing and Tehran is cautious about the future government in Afghanistan and therefore they are in touch with both the stake holders in the Afghanistan that is Taliban and Afghan Government. Along with Moscow, Beijing and Tehran have held peace talks with between Taliban and Afghan Government separately from US sponsored.

Image source: Getty

Beijing is seeking to occupy the vacuum created post-US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. Beijing through its economic and expansionist policy seeks to occupy the vacuum in the Middle East. China is already involved in the bilateral relationship with Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates. These bilateral relationships act as the balance of relationship with Iran and its counterparts. The China dominated Middle East region will influence the relationship of western developed countries which supports freedom of trade and democracy and it will also influence the relationship of Middle East countries with India.

China dominated Iran which is world’s second largest natural gas reserves and fourth-largest oil reserves will revolve around the terms and conditions of China which threatens the current global order and it will also dent the US military capability against China to provide regional security and stability.


The offensive Sino-Iranian relationship will counter the vision of US to provide secure and democratic Middle East to the world. China through increased investments and economic assistance to Iran will negate the efficacy of economic sanctions imposed on Iran by US. Iranian missiles developed with Chinese support have already posed threat to US forces and its partners in the region. But everything is not in the favor of Sino-Iranian relationship. Not all the people are in support to this engagement which was reflected in the survey done in 2017 where 58% Iranian population agreed Beijing helpful to Tehran while 39% Iranian population disagreed on the same. According to the Dr Alterman, it is China which is most benefited by Sino-Iranian relationship and it is clear that Iran needs China more than China needs Iran as China has other partners in the region.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team

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Nitin Rakesh

Nitin Rakesh studied MA- Politics with Specialization in International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

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