By signing a strategic, long-term cooperation plan with China in the midst of a renewed nuclear diplomacy with the West, Iran is setting the stage for charting a new foreign policy course that would strengthen the country’s positions in the international arena.
While the world was holding its breath to see how Iran and the U.S. would break the nuclear deadlock, Tehran surprised the world by signing a comprehensive cooperation plan with Beijing and striking a dour note on the United States’ stated plan to “lengthen and strengthen” the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Chinese State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi signed the plan on March 27, raising Tehran-Beijing relations in various fields to a new, strategic level.
The plan, officially known as the “Comprehensive Cooperation between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the People’s Republic of China,” was extensively hailed by almost all Iranian officials as a “strategic” decision, though they somehow differed on the underlying reasons behind cementing ties with China.
Early negotiations over the plan date back to 2016 when Chinese President Xi Jinping paid a successful visit to Iran during which China and Iran announced the establishment of a comprehensive strategic partnership, according to Chinese Ambassador to Iran Chang Hua. Since then, Chang told the Tehran Times, exchanges and cooperation in various fields of the two countries have become increasingly close.
Iranian officials across the political spectrum have broached two sets of views on the plan. Some of them put it in the broader context of Iran’s troubled relations with the West.
“The signing of Iran and China Strategic Partnership Roadmap is part of the Active Resistance policy. The world isn’t just the West and the West isn’t just the lawbreaking America, UK, France and Germany,” Ali Shamkhani, Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, tweeted on March 29.
Parliament Speaker Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf echoed the same view, saying that the Iran-China strategic plan was an “important warning” to the U.S.
“We clarify that we welcome this move. If the signing of the document is based on this belief that the world is not just the West and that the future century (21st century) is Asia’s century it would be considered a strategic step,” the speaker said.
Other Iranian officials said the plan per se was a “strategic choice.”
“Iran attaches great importance to its relations with China, and strengthening cooperation with China is a strategic choice made by Iran,” the Iranian foreign minister was quoted by the Chinese Foreign Ministry as saying during a meeting with his Chinese counterpart.
Ambassador Chang noted that Tehran and Beijing are determined to move forward with the plan.
“Wang Yi’s recent successful visit to Iran demonstrate that both sides attach great importance to the comprehensive strategic partnership of the two countries and have the political will to promote it further,” the Chinese ambassador told the Tehran Times.
He further noted that Wang emphasized many times during his recent visit to Iran that no matter how the world situation changes, China’s willingness to develop China-Iran relations will not change.
This can explain why China moved to sign the plan with Iran at present. Some political circles close to the government of Hassan Rouhani have raised the claim that full implementation of the Iran-China plan may hinge on improving ties with the West, largely by reviving the JCPOA and lifting U.S. sanctions. But China made it clear that its strategic cooperation with Iran will not be subject to international developments.
Instead of focusing on international developments, including those related to the JCPOA, China seems to be attaching more importance to regional developments, something that is evident from the five-point initiative that was proposed by Foreign Minister Wang during his recent visit to Iran. According to the ambassador, the Chinese initiative promotes mutual respect among regional countries, upholds equity and justice by supporting a sound solution to the Palestinian question, roots for non-proliferation efforts, fosters collective security, and accelerates development cooperation.
“China is prepared to stay in close touch with all sides on the five-point initiative and work closely to promote peace, security and development in the Middle East [West Asia],” Ambassador Chang concluded.