Wang Yi's visit to Iran and China-Iran Strategic Partnership Initiatives
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi began a six-country tour (Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Oman) of the Middle East on 24 March. Iran was undoubtedly the most notable stop of the tour. This visit, the highest-level official visit by China to Tehran since Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit in 2016, took place at a time when both governments were experiencing great tension with Washington. While the visit, which took place amid the ongoing tension with the USA, carried a political message for both Beijing and Tehran, the signing of the road map of the 25-Year Cooperation Agreement between the two countries also drew attention to Tehran.
Prior to signing the roadmap for strategic cooperation between the countries, Yi also met with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Referring to the long-term cooperation goal of the two countries, Rouhani expressed his wishes to deepen the relations in all areas, including political and economic ones. Rouhani also expressed his appreciation for Beijing's support for the Nuclear Deal. On the other hand, Yi said that Iran's current nuclear problem was caused by the unilateral withdrawal of the United States from the agreement and called on the US to lift its sanctions against Iran and return to the agreement unconditionally.
“Relations between the two countries have now reached the level of strategic partnership, and China seeks to comprehensively improve relations with Iran,” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said, following the signing of the roadmap for strategic cooperation for the 25-Year Cooperation Agreement between the parties. The Chinese Minister added that their relations with Iran are permanent and strategic. On the other hand, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif called China “a friend for hard times”. “Excellent exchange on the expansion of global, regional and bilateral cooperation in the context of our comprehensive strategic partnership, culminated in the signing of a historic 25-year strategic roadmap,” he added.
Although the initial signatures for the implementation of the agreement have been made, both countries have not made a definitive statement on the content of the agreement. However, opinions are that the 18-page proposed agreement obtained by The New York Times last year has remained largely unchanged. It is noted that the draft includes a total of $400 billion of Chinese investment, which envisages increased cooperation between the parties in dozens of fields, including banking, telecommunications, ports, railways, information technology and military cooperation, over the next 25 years. In exchange for these investments, Iran will offer great discounts and opportunities to China, especially in the field of oil, while it is also said that there is a possibility that China will have military assets in the region.
The signing of the roadmap for strategic cooperation between the two countries was in many ways interpreted as increasing China's influence in the Middle East. Most of the comments that have been made are that if the deal is implemented, China could deepen its influence in the Middle East and undercut US efforts to keep Iran isolated. Because possible strategic cooperation between Iran and China, which is considered the most important rival of the United States globally, could lead China to intensify its activities in the Middle East, and it is also of great importance in terms of integrating the Belt and Road Initiative into the region.
On the other hand, it should be noted that it is unclear how much of this agreement can be implemented while the US dispute with Iran over its nuclear program remains unresolved. As a matter of fact, if a consensus is reached between Tehran and Washington on the Nuclear Deal, the extent to which the implementation of projects that are said to be included in the 25-year Cooperation Agreement will become clear over time. If a consensus is not reached on the Nuclear Deal, it is also worth noting that sanctions from the Donald Trump era could be re-imposed, and Chinese companies could also face secondary sanctions from Washington.