China-Iran relations are always one of the focuses of discussions in China, Iran and international academic community as well. As the discussions in Iran in the last weeks indicate, mainstream Iranian public opinion stands for building stronger relations between the two not only economically but also strategically. Yet, despite the rather favorable foundations of the comprehensive strategic partnership (CSP), the two sides, particularly the Iranian side will have to overcome some challenges.
China and Iran have every reason to establish and strengthen CSP. Both of the two have long histories of ancient civilizations, and have the experience of being humiliated by the West in general in the last two centuries. And both of the two share the same kind of experience of being bullied and sanctioned by the US in the last decades. These similarities have made the two psychologically closer to each other as the two could easily understand each other’s concern for national independence, sovereignty and quest for legitimate rights.
The last a couple of years have seen the CSP growing more and more mature in almost every field. China has been explicitly and resolutely supporting Iran’s legitimate rights prescribed in the JCPOA, and opposing US unilateral sanctions on Iran. And Iran was always ready to express resolute support for China’s struggle for its legitimate interests regarding various issues related to sovereignty. China has remained the largest economic partner of Iran for many years, and Iran one of China’s major partners in the region, albeit sanctions. And people-to-people exchanges between the two have also increased greatly in the last five years.
The year 2020 particularly sees the two are helping each other in COVID-19 fight. Mohammad Javad Zarif was the first Foreign Minister who expressed support for China in the COVID-19 fight, and Iran was among the first countries that have assisted China with medical materials. The Azadi Tower, a landmark monument in the Iranian capital of Tehran, was lit up in the night of February 18, 2020, as part of a ceremony showing support for China.
Iran’s assistance was reciprocated by China soon after Iran saw the outbreak of the COVID-19 in late February. China sent a group of medical experts to Iran on February 27, the first such delegation that China has dispatched since the outbreak of the pandemic sharing experience and expertise. China has also aided Iran with medical materials and facilities even when China was in shortage itself.
The future will see huge potential for cooperation between the two in their respective visions to promote their regional and international standings. China could be a major if not most important partner in Iran’s efforts to materialize its legitimate interests in JCPOA and to build its role as a major regional power maintaining peace and stability in the region. Iran could be a major partner for China in pushing forward the BRI in the region across West Asia, Central Asia and South Caucasus.
However, despite all these solid foundations of cooperation, the challenges in China-Iran relations are also numerous. On China’s side, the challenges will mainly lie in how to overcome the technical problems as a result of US sanctions, for instance, how to create channels to bring more and more investments from Chinese medium and small sized enterprises.
But the toughest challenges actually come from Iranian side. Iran’s misperceptions about China are numerous, the most serious of which should be some Iranians’ misperception of China as an old colonial power.
Iran had seen very bitter engagements with major international powers in the last two centuries. In the nineteenth century, Iran had fallen to be the sphere of influence of Tsarist Russia and Britain, and the most important policies of Iran were decided in the embassies of the two countries in Tehran. In 1953, Iran’s nationalist government was toppled down by CIA. In post-revolutionary era, Iran had been economically sanctioned, politically isolated and militarily threatened by the US. This kind of special history has deeply affected the mentalities of Iranians for generations. Even today, Iranians are still very alert about the intentions of outside powers.
China shares very similar history with Iran during its engagement with the West in the last two centuries, as China had also been humiliated by western powers in the same period of time, and had been sanctioned, isolated and threatened by the West, particularly by the US in different periods of time since 1949. This kind of experience has also affected deeply China’s thinking and behavior regarding sovereignty issues.
But besides victim’s mentality, the history has served as a reminder for China not to do what itself does not like to others, namely respecting sovereignty of other countries. Therefore, China has never interfered into the domestic affairs of other countries, even has established non-interference as the principle of its foreign policy, and has strongly opposed interference by other major powers.
Unfortunately, despite sharing with similar history, China is also often mistaken as having the same kind of invasive and aggressive policy as colonial powers did. When talking about strategic cooperation, some Iranians are concerned that China might want to have military bases in Iran though China has never had military confrontation with Iran in history, and has never had military bases abroad. When talking about economic cooperation, some Iranians are concerned that China might dominate Iran’s economy with the growing of cooperation between the two. But China is, maybe the only one country that has clearly defined win-win policy in trade relations, and has clearly expressed that it never seeks for unilateral gains.
In addition to the above-mentioned the misperceptions about China, there is another detrimental factor in China-Iran relations, which is politicization of China-Iran relations. The last decade has seen China has become Iran’s largest business partner, which has served the interests of both Iran and China. But unfortunately, the development of China-Iran economic relations has also been raised by some Iranian politicians to challenge the political standings of Iran’s incumbent government, which has already become an obstacle in China-Iran relations. For stance, some politicians would always raise the question whether incumbent government sacrificed Iran’s interests in cooperation with China though China has been under serious pressure and sacrificed a lot in cooperation with Iran. For instance, one of the reasons behind US sanctions on Huawei is just because of its business with Iran.
All in all, China-Iran relations will be of broad and bright future, and relations between the two are well founded as the two have no historical burdens and will be least likely disrupted by historical issues.
However, challenges out of some Iranians’ misperceptions about China and the potential politicization of China-Iran relations could be real serious obstacles in the relations between two. How China-Iran relations will evolve will largely depend on how Iranian elites manage these kinds of challenges. Iranian scholars on China studies have frequently travelled to China, and they not only have profound knowledge but also personal experience in engaging with China. They could take great responsibility in promoting understandings about China among Iranian audience.