The recent visit of Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi to China is significant for many reasons. But the most important reason is the way China sees this relationship going in terms of its push for an emerging alliance for an alternative global order led by China (and Russia). At one level, China’s deepening ties with Iran reflect the former’s growing engagement with the Middle East overall. China is already the Arab world’s largest trading partner since 2020, surpassing US$330 billion in bilateral trade in 2021. In 2021, China signed a comprehensive strategic partnership with Iran, but ever since then, Beijing has signed similar agreements with twelve other countries in the Middle East/North Africa region.
In this context, China’s ties with Iran should not be seen as any more significant than China’s general ties with Iran’s neighbours in the region. But, as it stands, China’s ties with Iran are indeed unusual insofar as they sit at the centre of the alliance for an alternative world order. In other words, China-Iran ties are more than simply bilateral. Indeed, this is how Beijing sees these ties.
Commenting on Raisi’s visit, Global Times, the mouthpiece of China’s Communist Party, said that Iran’s “Look East policy” is a reflection of Iran’s decisive turn away from the west “to building alliances with non-western world powers that have similar political structures to Iran, such as Russia and China.”
This comment is crucial insofar as it signifies a coming together of non-western political systems against the West’s domination of global politics since particularly the end of the Cold War.
This coming together is not limited to China and Iran. In fact, Iran’s engagement with Russia has already transitioned to the realm of the politics of new, alternative world order. In January 2023, Moscow and Tehran connected their banking/financial systems, a move that defies US sanctions on Iran and Russia that forced both countries out of the Belgium-based SWIFT financial messaging service.
This cooperation is not limited to the banking sector. Apart from this alliance growing in military terms, official data from Iran shows that Russia is also one of the largest foreign investors in Iran. Like China, Russia’s engagement with Iran stems from an understanding that Iran has a vital role to play in consolidating a non-western bloc in the world. Xi seemed in full agreement with Russia when he stressed in the statement he gave on the occasion of Raisi’s visit. He said that China,
“supports Iran in safeguarding its sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity and national dignity as well as resisting unilateralism and hegemony, and opposes attempts by external forces to interfere in Iran’s domestic affairs and undermine its security and stability.”
If we unpack this statement, a few things become crystal clear. For instance, it identifies that “external forces” are those that exercise “hegemony” and “unilateralism”- two classic expressions that describe US geopolitics post-Cold War. Secondly, the statement keeps resistance against “hegemony” and “unilateralism” as the hallmark of Iran’s geopolitics.
In one way, the fact that Iran has been resisting the US for decades makes a lot of sense for both Moscow and Beijing. With Russia confronting the US and NATO forces in Ukraine and China facing the US in the Indo-Pacific, Iran’s active resistance to the US completes the triangle. It would not be wrong to say that both Russia and China today find themselves on the same ground Iran has been standing in for several years now. It is, therefore, logical for both Russia and China to shape their ties with Iran in a way that has the potential to change the rules of the game to their advantage.
Therefore, with an eye on consolidating an alliance for a new, alternative world order, both China and Iran are keen to steer their ties in ways that avoid points of contention. One of the key points is China’s ties with the Gulf states, Iran’s regional rivals.
Both Xi and the commentary in Global Times avoided any reference to the Gulf, showing how both Iran and China, realising the crucial importance of their ties that has implications far and beyond the region itself, have learnt to navigate the complex world. The emphasis accordingly remains on the global, rather than regional, side of their ties. As a separate editorial in Global Times said,
“Both China and Iran uphold independent foreign policies, firmly defend the principle of non-interference in internal affairs on international occasions, and safeguard the common interests of developing countries. This is conducive to promoting the multi-polarization and diversified development of the world, and conforms to the general trend of the times.”
As is evident, China sees itself facing the threat – and the same sorts of challenges – that Iran is facing. There is, therefore, a lot of room for both countries to focus on the minimum common ground rather than any points of contention and disagreement. Both understand that their alliance, tied to Russia both separately and collectively, is vital for their survival in a world that, as the said editorial correctly pointed out, “under Washington’s moves” undergoing division and restructuring.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.“