Iran, China Will Sign 25-Year Deal Saturday, As Relations With US Remain Tense
Iran's official news agency, IRNA, on Friday [26 March] reported that Iran will on Saturday sign a 25-year accord with China during foreign minister Wang Yi's visit to Tehran. Iranian officials have described the Sino-Iranian Comprehensive Strategic Partnership as a "strategic roadmap" that will go beyond economic co-operation.
Beijing sees the agreement as part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which it has developed since 2013 to promote commercial, energy, transportation, 5G, and infrastructure projects in around 70 countries. China has been for some years the largest foreign investor in the Middle East and its biggest oil buyer.
Iran has been heralding a the 25-year agreement since mid-2020 but China had remained silent on the issue. However, relations between Beijing and Washington have remained tense even after Donald Trump left the White House and China might be tempted to use the Iran card to show its displeasure..
Wang Yi’s itinerary reflects China’s outreach. He arrived in Tehran on Friday morning on the second leg of a Middle East tour that had taken him to Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The foreign minister is also to visit the UAE, Bahrain, and Oman. In Tehran, he is scheduled to meet with President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. According to Tasnim News, Wang Yi will also meet Ali Larijani, an adviser to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
Hua Liming, a former Chinese ambassador to Iran, told Global Times, the English language newspaper published by the People’s Daily, in a piece published Friday that Iran was eager to strengthen cooperation “as a key country on the Belt and Road Initiative and one of the major oil exporters to China.”
Hua noted that Iran had been “been hit by US sanctions and the [Covid-19] pandemic.”
He said Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers would be discussed during the visit: "The withdrawal of the Trump administration from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is a big blow to Iran's economy. In fact, Iran wants the US to return to the deal, and China can coordinate with it."
On Thursday, the Chinese commerce ministry spokesman Gao Feng told a news briefing that Beijing remained committed both to the JCPOA and to defending the legitimate interests of Sino-Iranian relations, including oil deals. China – along with other signatories of the JCPOA: Russia, the UK, France and Germany – has never accepted the legitimacy of US threats to sanction buyers of Iranian oil.
Gao Feng denied that China had received notices of sanctions from the Biden administration over buying Iranian oil. According to the Financial Times, Washington had warned Beijing it would enforce third-party sanctions introduced by the administration of President Donald Trump after he withdrew the US from the JCPOA in 2018.
With tightening US sanctions, Tehran stopped revealing information on its oil sales, but Bloomberg recently reported that China was the main buyer of Iranian oil exports that had risen to around 1 million barrels a day. Reuters said this week that Iran had indirectly moved increasing volumes into China in recent months, marked as supplies from Oman, the UAE and Malaysia.
On Friday Majid-Reza Hariri, chairman of the Sino-Iranian Chamber of Commerce, said bilateral trade had fallen from nearly $52 billion in 2014 to around $20 billion in 2020, the lowest for 12 years, due to US sanctions and the resulting lower oil sales. According to Hariri this figure included unofficial oil sales.
Tehran’s strategic agreement with China has been criticized by several principlists, including former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. One lawmaker, Mahmoud Ahmadi-Bighash, in July alleged that the government had wanted to transfer control of Iranian islands in the Persian Gulf to Beijing but "people and Parliament's reaction [had] stopped them."