Analysis. Xi and Raisi are perfect strategic partners, with China putting $400 billion into Iran’s energy and infrastructure sectors. But that ‘will not be enough to restore the confidence of the Iranians, who remain suspicious towards the Chinese giant and its products.’

China and Iran are cooperating, but it doesn’t mean they’re friends

“Iran has signed an agreement with China that serves to show the West that it can no longer isolate the Islamic Republic. However, the details of the understanding are actually not clear: nothing concrete has been arranged, only a series of vague promises between Beijing and Tehran. And it is likely that the newly elected ultra-conservative president Ebrahim Raisi will continue in this direction,” observes Dina Esfandiary, senior advisor for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group.

The ultra-conservative Ebrahim Raisi will take office as President of the Islamic Republic on August 3. In the election campaign, he had declared that “he wanted to give priority to diplomatic relations with countries geographically close to Iran, which is on good terms with China.” And on Monday, Chinese President Xi Jinping congratulated Raisi, pointing out that the two countries are “strategic partners.” The partnership between Tehran and Beijing covers the whole spectrum: from trade to security, including the fight against terrorism, military cooperation, tourism and support for each other’s positions in international organizations. In other words, China, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, will likely exercise its veto to block further resolutions against Iran. This year marks 50 years of diplomatic relations between China and Iran.

Beijing is Tehran’s main trading partner and was one of the largest buyers of Iranian oil even before the reinstatement of unilateral U.S. sanctions decided by Donald Trump after Washington pulled out of the nuclear deal. In March, in Tehran, Iran signed a 25-year political, strategic and economic cooperation pact with China, in the presence of Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, a deal which came after five years of negotiations. It sets out Chinese investments of about $400 billion in the Iranian energy and infrastructure sectors, while for its part, Tehran guarantees Beijing a stable supply of oil and gas at competitive prices.

However, the relationship between Beijing and Tehran is an asymmetrical one, in which the Persian lion is bowing to the Chinese dragon only because it has no other option in this historical context, marked by the combined effect of the Covid-19 pandemic and the collapse of oil prices, but especially due to the rift created with the European Union in 2018, when U.S. President Trump unilaterally withdrew from the nuclear agreement. With their backs to the wall, Iran’s top leadership was forced to make deals with China. Beijing may soon control a good part of Iranian resources, as well as the portion of the coast overlooking the Sea of Oman, strategic for the passage of oil tankers in the Persian Gulf.

However, the Chinese dragon is scaring the Iranians: “The statements from Tehran’s leadership and the billion-dollar agreements will not be enough to restore the confidence of the Iranians, who remain suspicious towards the Chinese giant and its products, considered to be of low quality,” says Dina Esfandyari. The biggest problem is that “in recent years, the Iranians have had evidence that they cannot rely on the West,” especially on Europe, which is perceived to be in a position of subordination to Washington. For this reason, “the Iranians know they must put on a happy face and adapt to dealing with the Chinese.”

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