China and Iran agreed last Saturday to increase trade to $600 billion in the next ten years, as President Xi Jinping met with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani after the lifting of international sanctions against Iran. China has been conducting economic relations with Iran in recent years, despite the presence of international sanctions on Iran for continuing to develop its nuclear program. Iran plays an important role in China’s One Belt One Road initiative, and is to become an important railway connection and remain an oil supplier to China. Should China’s relations with Iran be viewed as a threat to the West?
Maybe. China’s relations with Iran may support the latter’s military capabilities, particularly as China sells arms and transfers nuclear technology to Iran. China’s overall trade with Iran lessens the power of international sanctions. This relationship has reduced the power of sanctions and embargoes for decades, starting in 1979 when the U.S. and the West imposed arms embargoes on Iran, inducing Iran to purchase weapons from China instead. Iran acts as an important transport hub between China and Europe.
Or maybe not. Iran has curbed its nuclear program according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, which means that Iran has restricted its possession of enriched uranium, limited centrifuge operations, shipped out all spent fuel reactors, and met other conditions under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. In addition, China is not the only nation Iran is attempting to openly court, now that sanctions have been lifted. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani traveled to Europe to rebuild political and economic relations in that region. Rouhani’s visit appeals to European leaders due in part to his stated commitment in fighting terrorism. Rouhani has underscored Iran’s desire to bring solidarity among all Muslims and combat discord.
China’s aims in relations with controversial foreign regimes are most often to promote economic ties that serve its self-interest rather than to choose a preferred political ideology. Even as China has maintained genial relations with the West, the nation has been criticized for doing business with dictators that engage in atrocious human rights violations. China’s policy has been “noninterference in internal affairs.” Although regular trade relations with violent regimes may be necessary to supply goods to the people, trade in weapons and nuclear materials supports violence and can be easily viewed as interference in internal affairs.
Moreover, Iran’s commitment in fighting terrorism can be called into question. The U.S. State Department has repeatedly accused Iran of supporting terrorism, including Hezbollah and the Syrian army under President Bashar al-Assad. Terrorism has been viewed as a tool of the state since 1979, after the launch of Iran as an Islamic Republic. Iran has used terrorism to weaken rival governments, influence disputes outside its borders, and to intimidate or use as political leverage. While certainly relations in the Middle East are complex and often hostile, Iran’s use of terrorism against a multitude of parties renders it a questionable ally against terrorism.
Whether China’s relations with Iran are a threat to the West can be viewed from different perspectives, but the real threat of violence stemming from Iran must be taken seriously. As a key stop on China’s One Belt One Road, Iran’s importance to China seems healthy, but the sales of weapons or nuclear material in particular cast a shadow over this partnership. As China becomes increasingly influential on the world stage, this relationship will likely be more deeply scrutinized.
Two clarifications: Iran has supported President Bashar-al-Assad who is not a terrorist, but rather is a leader who has used violence, possibly including chemical weapons, against his own people. China as a state does not sell nuclear technology to Iran, but has allegedly protected a major seller of nuclear technology.