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China-Iran Strategic Partnership and the Future of US Hegemony in the Persian Gulf Region

Authors: Alam Saleh, Zakiyeh Yazdanshenas

Affiliation: Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies, Australian National University; Centre for Middle East Strategic Studies

Organization/Publisher: British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies

Date/place: May 17, 2023/ Tehran, Iran

Type of Literature: Research Paper

Word Count: 13000

Link: https://doi.org/10.1080/13530194.2023.2215188

 

Keywords: Iran, China, Persian Gulf, US hegemony

 

Brief:

The strategic partnership between China and Iran, enshrined in a 25-year accord, constitutes a momentous milestone in the domain of international relations. This article elaborates on the multilayered facets of this burgeoning alliance, encompassing the historical backdrop, motivating factors, foundational underpinnings, ongoing expansion, regional implications, and its future prospects. The authors argue that central to this partnership is the common objective of challenging American hegemony in the West Asian region, a pivotal theme that permeates the entire article.

To appreciate the evolution of this partnership, the paper delves into the contextual factors that have shaped it. Iran’s historical approach to diplomacy has consistently revolved around its aspiration to remain non-aligned, thereby safeguarding its autonomy in the sphere of international relations. Concurrently, China has ascended as a global player with far-reaching influence, particularly through its expansive Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This initiative functions as a dynamic platform facilitating China’s burgeoning presence in the West Asian region and, crucially, fostering a burgeoning partnership with Iran.

The article maintains that the driving force behind the China-Iran partnership lies in their shared aspiration to challenge U.S. hegemony in West Asia. Both nations perceive the United States as a dominant force that has historically influenced the region’s political and economic dynamics, often to their detriment. By forging a strategic alliance, China and Iran aim to recalibrate the balance of power, exercising greater influence and control over regional affairs while diminishing the United States’ hegemony. Iran’s objective of diversifying its alliances, combating U.S. influence, and safeguarding the Persian Gulf accords with China’s aim of promoting regional stability and securing its interests.

Nonetheless, the China-Iran strategic partnership marks a pivotal shift in the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East. As it continues to evolve, the world watches this partnership with keen interest, recognizing its consequences extend far beyond China and Iran’s borders, impacting the intricate web of global geopolitics.

The partnership’s growth is manifest in diverse areas, including economic collaboration, energy coordination, and infrastructure development. Iran’s aspiration to attract Chinese investments in its energy sector and infrastructure projects is rooted in the need for economic expansion and global market access. For China, Iran represents a dependable source of energy and a strategic component of the Belt and Road Initiative.

Iran’s ‘look to the East’ aligns with China’s ‘March West’ and the two programs have the potential to yield mutually profitable results. This becomes more evident as Beijing’s traditional ‘wary dragon’ strategy appears to vanish in the Middle East and China seeks to expand its realm of influence. 

The partnership’s significance is anticipated to grow in the face of China’s ascent and the evolving global order. As China seeks secure energy sources and expands its reach, the China-Iran relationship is poised to evolve, leaving an indelible mark on the balance of power in West Asia and across the broader international arena.

China’s rise as a political, military, and economic giant is fundamentally altering Western power and influence, signaling a departure from the era of Western-led international affairs. This transformation, often referred to as the “post-Western international order” as termed by Barry Buzan, represents a return to a more balanced world order akin to the pre-modern era, characterized by loosely connected but influential centers of power such as China, India, and the Islamic world. Buzan aptly labels this emerging world order as “deep pluralism.”

This shift poses challenges to countries aspiring to assert themselves as global powers, as traditional notions of hegemony become less feasible and legitimate. Furthermore, the restructuring of the global order is likely to result in heightened competition and conflict among major powers in regions far from their immediate geographical boundaries. These geopolitical changes are already manifesting in regions like East Asia, Southeast Asia, Ukraine, and the eastern borders of the European Union, underscoring the transformative nature of the evolving global landscape.

 

In terms of defense and security, Iran, since 2003, has found itself surrounded by US troops at its borders, accompanied by economic sanctions. The paper argues that this led Iran to adopt a ‘defense in depth’ strategy to counter perceived existential threats. As part of this in depth defense strategy, Iran implemented four strategies to deter powerful rivals like the US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia in the evolving Middle East security landscape:

  1. Geographical Expansion: Iran aimed to extend its conflict zone from the Oman Sea to the Mediterranean Sea, establishing permanent naval bases in these regions. This strategy was designed to create logistical challenges for the US in managing a war over such a vast area.
  2. Protraction of Conflicts: Iran sought to prolong regional conflicts to make them financially unsustainable for the United States and other democracies, taking advantage of public opinion sensitivities that arise during protracted conflicts.
  3. Military Diversification: Iran diversified its military campaigns by moving beyond conventional warfare, embracing irregular and asymmetric warfare, and leveraging its strengths in these areas.
  4. Seeking Global Support: Iran invited global rivals of the US, such as Russia and China, to provide political, military, and economic support. This approach aligns with Iran’s historical foreign policy of maintaining a third-party approach to achieve a strategic balance and protect its interests.

 

The paper concludes that there are subtle differences between the strategic partnership in question between Iran and China, and any other partnerships between the two countries in the past. They argue that these differences have the potential to reshape and redefine relations as well as the balance of power in the Persian Gulf region, leading to redefinitions of friends versus foes for the nations involved and the neighboring states. China’s willingness to acknowledge Iran’s increasing power in the region and allow it to play an active role aligns with China’s interests in an emerging new world order. The future of this strategic partnership depends on the direction the rivalry between China and the United States takes and how China pursues plans to limit the U.S.’ projection of hegemony in the region. Nonetheless, what is clear to this date is that Iran and China share interests that signal the long-term continuation of the partnership at the strategic level for years to come. 


By: Setareh Sadeqi, CIGA Non-resident Research Fellow

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