Written by Majid Rafizadeh.

It has been argued that the only reason China maintains robust political and economic relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran—backing Iran directly or indirectly on its nuclear program or foreign and domestic policies in the United Nations and Security Council—is that China is the largest energy consumer in the world. Iran provides 15% of China’s industry need for gas and oil and with its economic growth accelerating remarkably, China is in a desperate need for more. Iran is a specific, uncontested rich source of oil for China because Beijing does not have to compete with other Western or Asian markets to gain oil contracts in Tehran.

While these facts are all certainly true, it is incorrect to assume that oil imports are the only thread tying China and Iran together tightly. Several other important and often overlooked factors explaining their close relationship are shared historical experiences, common outlooks and concerns in the current state of international and regional affairs, and overlapping interests.

Both Iranian and Chinese officials invoke an ancient past relationship at every opportunity. They remind each other that China and Iran are former centers of empire and the original birthplace of two great civilizations. In pre-Islamic times, envoys to the Han dynasty made contact with the Parthians and later the Sassanids, setting up the foundation for subsequent lucrative commercial ties between China and Persia. Later, in Islamic times, the Silk Road served as the main thoroughfare through which Sino-Iranian cultural and trade relations flourished. The echoes of “lost” empire are key here: deeply engrained in both Chinese and Iranian national consciousness is the desire to reclaim influence and status on the world stage. This shared sense of pride in their ancient histories brings China and Iran culturally and socially closer to one another, significantly impacting their economic and political relationships as well.

China and Iran also share a concern with global governance and, in particular, the role of the United States. Both Iran and China would like to compete with and ultimately replace the U.S. During a 1991 visit to Iran, Chinese premier Li Peng spoke to the Iranian media on this point stating that: “We are against the domination of the U.S. or of a minority over the world, and against the creation of the new order by the U.S. in international relations, and we are in complete agreement with the Islamic Republic of Iran on this point.” The current Chinese President Hu Jintao pointed out that “Tehran and Beijing should help each other to manage global developments in favor of their nations, otherwise the same people who are the factors of current international problems will again rule the world.” Iranian leaders, for their part, express similar sentiments. Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has referred to the creation of a “new world order” on multiple occasions. When it comes to addressing global problems, China and Iran continually look to one another as they attempt varied methods and ideologies to prescribe an alternative to the current world order.

A third, inexorable link between the two countries are China’s exports to the Iranian market vis-à-vis its oil imports from Iran. China exported around US$12.1 billion in goods to Iran last year. While China is a major export market for Iranian crude oil, Iran is then in a position to import a large quantity of gasoline back from China due to its own lack of refining capacity. Given the sanctions on Iran, China appears to be picking up this newly available market share with quickness. This is a mutually beneficial arrangement, as Iran needs the gasoline and China has surplus refining and shipping capacity. In September 2009, China increased its gasoline supply to Iran to one-third of total Iranian gasoline imports. J.P. Morgan commodities research estimates that China sends between 30,000 to 40,000 barrels per day to Iran through third party intermediaries. China has offered its services to enhance Iran’s infrastructure as well—deals have been signed to build dams and railway lines in Iran as the first step in a wider plan to tie the Middle East and Central Asia to Beijing. From oil refinery to civil infrastructure, China’s economic activities work to undermine the U.S. strategy of multilateral and unilateral sanctions.

Finally, China seems to benefit from the fact that the U.S. is putting its efforts, attention, and resources to curb the influence of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Meanwhile, China continues its slow, though persistent, march towards greater influence in Asia without a contender. The People’s Republic of China can therefore use the Iranian nuclear program as a bargaining chip to shift the balance of power in future negotiations with the United States and European countries.

Strategically speaking, the Islamic Republic of Iran is a good asset for China to thwart any increased influence from other countries which China views as threat. This will assure the continuing and increasing influence of China in the Persian Gulf, whether politically, diplomatically or economically. The close ties between China and Iran go beyond one country’s imports of oil and gas from another: there are shared historical, strategic and pragmatic interests that will continue to drive these two countries closer together. Despite their different governmental structures—and even despite their largely opposite ideologies—China and Iran’s common strategic goals over the last three decades will continue to intensify their relations moving forward.

Syria: Three Axes of Iran, China, and Russia

As the crisis in Syria enters its third year, world powers have become more divided over how to resolve this crisis. The death toll exceeds 110,000, according to the United Nations. Considering the Syrian regime’s atrocities, the West along with the Arab League is pondering the reasons behind Beijing and Moscow’s reluctance vis-à-vis a change in Syria’s political structure.

It is widely argued that Russian and Chinese economic and strategic interests embedded in the survival of the Assad’s regime have outweighed their humanitarian concerns. Russia’s strategic interests in the Mediterranean Sea are intertwined with the current political establishment in Syria because the Syrian port of Tartous—its second largest—houses Russia’s only naval base in the region. In addition, Syria has been purchasing arms from Russia as an arms client for decades. China has invested considerably in Syria, which it regards as a trading hub.

The factors behind Chinese and Russian adamant support for the Syrian regime, however, go beyond these common perceptions. Although Syria has bought arms from Russia for the last few decades, it has not been a perfect client as it has struggled to make payments. There are reports indicating that Syria owes Russia billions of dollars in arms deals. Syria is also not as key of a trading partner to the Chinese compared to other Arab states in the Persian Gulf. Additionally, Syria is not rich in natural resources such as oil and gas in a region that is considered the world’s energy hub.

Taking all this into account, sticking to the above causes would oversimplify the Chinese and Russian reaction to the Syrian crisis. In fact, Syria’s relations with China and Russia are broader and far more complicated because of the role Iran plays; however, the Iranian dimension of their relationship has gone largely unnoticed by the media. China and Russia are very concerned by the linkage between the Syrian crisis and the future of Iran in the region. Although Syria is not rich in natural resources, her strategic location is of great significance; Syria is considered a lynchpin of many relationships in the Middle East e.g. Iran-Arab relations, intra-Arab relations, Turkey-Saudi Arabia relations and most importantly, Iranian relations with Hezbollah and Hamas. Any change in the political structure of the Syrian regime would have implications for all the above relationships, especially those in connection with Iran’s role in the region.

When it comes to Iran, although the Syrian government and the Iranian regime are governed by different political systems—one secular and the other theocratic—losing Syria will be detrimental for Iran on several levels. Since 1979, Syria has been a key proxy for Iran by serving as a platform from which Iran has built formidable influence over the Arab-Israeli conflict. Iran’s alliance with Syria gave Iran the opportunity to establish Hezbollah, the powerful Shi’a movement in Lebanon, as well as to support the Sunni Palestinian movement, Hamas. The establishment of these proxy groups throughout the Levant has allowed Iran to strengthen and preserve its regional influence as well as to maintain a strong posture domestically. Without the Assad regime in power, Iran loses not just the flexibility and capability that having a friendly Syrian government brings to these proxy groups but also regional geopolitical leverage.

Collapse of the current political establishment in Syria will adversely affect Iran’s relationship with those same proxies in the Levant. Should Syria go through regime change, it is unlikely that the new regime would be supportive of the Iranian government to the same extent as the current regime. Undoubtedly, a democratic Syria with a Sunni majority (who constitute approximately 75% of the Syrian population) would be more sympathetic to the rest of the Arab world rather than Iran. More significantly, all opposition groups have already warned the Islamic Republic of its cordial relations with the Assad regime and asserted that the new Syria would view the Iranian government differently. This would tremendously shift the regional balance of power against Iran and further isolate the Islamic Republic in the region.

Such developments together with increasing international isolation and domestic pressure would alter Iran’s regional role and even place the Iranian regime on the brink of collapse. The Chinese and Russians, well aware of these disastrous repercussions from Assad’s removal, are determined to prevent the current Syrian government’s downfall given their key interests in the survival of the Iranian regime. Indeed, China and Russia’s prominent geopolitical and strategic interests in Iran are indisputable. One of the reasons that China maintains robust political and economic relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran is its relentless hunger for abundant sources of energy. China is the largest energy consumer in the world and currently depends on Iran for 15% of its industrial gas and oil needs. Together, Russia and Iran represent the first and second in the world in natural gas reserves and second and fourth in oil production. This abundance in natural resources has encouraged the two to pursue an economic partnership involving the refinement and export of oil and gas. Russia, China and Iran also share some similar concerns about global governance and, in particular, the position of the United States on the world stage. Thus, it would not be inaccurate to argue that Chinese and Russian long-term objectives in the region have outweighed other considerations. In short, their support for the Assad’s regime is rooted directly in maintaining the current regime in Iran.

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is an Iranian-Syrian scholar with past and present affiliations to Oxford, Columbia and Harvard, and President of the International American Council based in Washington DC. He is a regular commentator for national and international media and tweets @majidrafizadeh

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