On Monday China and Iran agreed to deepen defense ties, according to Chinese state media. The announcement was made following a meeting between Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan and his Iranian counterpart, Hossein Dehqan.
According to Reuters, which quoted a report in Xinhua News Agency, China said that bilateral relations “remained positive and steady, featuring frequent high-level exchanges and deepened political mutual trust.” Reuters also quoted Chang as saying that he is personally “confident that the friendly relations between the two countries as well as the armed forces will be reinforced” as a result of “increased mutual visits and personnel training cooperation between the armed forces.”
According to an Iranian news report, Chang also said that China views Iran as a strategic partner. “Given Iran and China’s common views over many important political-security, regional and international issues, Beijing assumes Tehran as its strategic partner,” Chang was quoted as saying by Fars News Agency, which is viewed as having close ties with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps.
For his part, Dehqan said, “The age-old and historical relations between the two countries which date back to over 2,000 years ago are full of instances of cooperation in cultural, economic, industrial and technological arenas.” He also “voiced the hope that the two countries will continue to play a positive role in safeguarding regional peace and stability,” presumably referring to the Middle East and Central and South Asia.
More specifically, Dehqan was quoted by Fars as saying: “We can remove the two sides’ common security concerns over extremism, terrorism, drug trafficking and piracy by developing military cooperation.”
The meeting took place in Beijing. Dehqan arrived in Beijing on Sunday for a four-day official visit to China at the invitation of Chang. It is his first visit to China since becoming Iran’s defense minister.
In some ways, the announcement today represents something of a shift — and possible weakening — of the defense ties between China and Iran. Since the 1979 revolution severed Tehran’s ties to the U.S. and the Western world, Iran’s defense relationship with China has primarily centered on Beijing selling Tehran advanced defense technologies. As Dan Blumenthal noted in 2005, “Since the mid-1980s, China has sold Iran, in whole or in parts, different variants of anti-ship cruise missiles such as the Silkworm (HY-2), the C-801, and the C-802.” Blumenthal also noted, citing a Jane’s report, that “China is producing several classes of tactical guided missiles – the JJ/TL-6b and 10A, the KJ/TL-10B and a new variant of the C-107 anti-ship missile, specifically for Iran.”
China is also believed to have been integral to Iran’s development of ballistic missiles. Beijing’s assistance was especially crucial in helping Iran with precision guidance and solid-fueled rocket propulsion.
Although in recent years — particularly since the late 1990s — the Chinese government is believed to have scaled back its defense sales to Iran, private Chinese companies have continued assisting the Persian Gulf country. As recently as 2012, the U.S. Director of National Intelligence told Congress, “Chinese entities — primarily private companies and individuals — continue to supply a variety of missile-related items to multiple customers, including recent exports to Iran and Pakistan.” Indeed, the U.S. has repeatedly sanctioned Chinese companies and individuals for selling Iran defense technologies, including just last week.
Chang and Dehqan’s focus on personnel visits in their remarks might simply be a desire on both sides part to publicly downplay arms sales and defense technology transfers. At the same time, it could be a reflection that Iran’s increasingly capable domestic defense industry no longer requires substantial Chinese assistance. In the same vein, Iran is increasingly wary of China’s long-term intentions in its surrounding areas.
Still, Sino-Iranian relations have generally improved since the P5+1 countries and Iran signed an interim agreement last November. China’s oil imports from Iran during the first quarter of this year were up 36 percent from 2013. In a sign of future economic cooperation, last month Zhang Gaoli, a Politburo Standing Committee member and vice premier, met with Iranian Minister of Finance and Economic Affairs Ali Tayyeb-Nia. Tayyeb-Nia was visiting China in a bid to boost economies ties in various areas. He also met with China’s Finance Minister, Lou Jiwei, during the trip.
China is already Iran’s largest trading partner and oil customer. Iran is China’s third largest oil provider.