The Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies’ Iranian Studies Unit hosted Manochehr Dorraj, Professor of International Affairs at Texas Christian University, on 7 February 2021 in Doha, for a lecture titled “China’s Expanding Ties with Iran: Strategic Implications”. The event was chaired by Mehran Kamrava, head of the unit and Professor of Government at Georgetown University in Qatar.

Dorraj began by providing a historical overview of Iran-China relations dating back over 2100 years. Reflecting on the Cold War period in the 1960s, Dorraj stated that “China’s relations with Iran improved in the 1960s, when the Sino-Soviet split provided an opportunity for Beijing to develop closer relations with the Shah, and Iran became the first country in the Middle East to establish relations with China in 1972”. He then discussed Iran-China relations after the 1979 revolution in the trade, energy, and security sectors. He emphasized that “just as China was leaving behind its revolutionary phase, Iran was entering its own revolutionary phase”. Trade relations between the two countries developed gradually during this period.

Before 1979, China accounted for less than 1 percent of Iran’s imports. This amount doubled by 2 percent in 1991. Dorraj stated that by 2009, “China became Iran’s leading trade partner in the world, counting for over 16 percent of its total trade”. Furthermore, when Europe, South Korea, and Japanese firms left the Iranian market due to the imposition of US-led sanctions, Chinese firms sought to fill much of the void. By 2014, with the imposition of new US-EU sanctions on Iran, bilateral trade between the two countries had started to decline, recovering after the nuclear deal of 2015 to reach $52 billion. In 2016, during XI Jinping’s visit to Tehran as part of their Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, Iran and China pledged to expand their bilateral trade to $600 billion by 2030.

Dorraj also stressed the importance of energy sector relations between the two countries observing that the “first substantial increase in Iran-China energy trade occurred in 1989, and between 2006 and 2007 China’s investment in Iran’s energy sector went up to $18 billion”. In 2009 as many Europeans left Iran’s energy market, China became Iran’s most important energy partner in up-and downstream energy operations. In addition, China is the number one investor in exploration and development of Iran’s energy sector.

However, this dramatically changed after the imposition of the Trump Administration’s “Maximum Pressure” campaign in May 2018. “When the French company Total pulled out of its investment of $4.9 billion in Iran’s South Pars Gas Field as result of secondary sanctions, China was meant to take over. However, it also pulled out of the project and cut its trade with Iran as much as 70 percent”. According to Dorraj, the Iran-China 25-year Comprehensive Strategic Partnership announced in 2020 is a “reaction to US policy of economic strangulation”. 

On China and Iran security ties, Dorraj noted that “China provided weapons to Iran and Iraq during their 1980-1988 war, with the value of Chinese armaments sold to Iran totaling $3.3 billion dollars”. Dorraj further stated that China has been a provider of technology and skills to Iran, especially significant for the early development of Iran’s nuclear program and missile system technology. China is currently the second largest arms provider to Iran. Nevertheless, China’s trade with Iran in arms sales or in other areas of trade and commerce pales in comparison to the volume of Chinese trade with Israel, Saudi Arabia, or the UAE. “It is important to understand that if China has expressed an interest in Iran in recent years, it has also demonstrated that it is equally interested in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, Egypt and Turkey, not to mention the countries of North Africa,” Dorraj said.

Dorraj ended his remarks by arguing that “while both Iran and China try to conjure up historical ties to legitimize their current relations, what drives the relationship is the cold calculus of their national interests”. He further noted that “this is not a relation between two equals. As an emerging superpower, China holds many more cards in the bilateral relationship with Iran. Given its relative international isolation struggling to lift the US-led campaign of economic strangulation and facing threats from the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, Tehran needs Beijing more than Beijing needs Tehran.”