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China: The Real Winner in Any New Iran Nuclear Deal

Chinese Economy
Chinese yuan banknotes are seen in this illustration picture taken April 25, 2022. REUTERS/Florence Lo/Illustration

U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has correctly observed that China “is the most serious long-term challenge to the international order.” But a new nuclear deal with Iran would only empower Beijing and alienate key regional allies.

Iran is arguably China’s foremost Middle Eastern ally. And by entering into a nuclear deal with Tehran, the U.S. would be playing right into Beijing’s hands. 

For years, the Chinese Communist Party sought to leave a light footprint in the Middle East, refraining from taking part in any of the region’s numerous disputes. Beijing eschewed military intervention of any kind, preferring to present itself as a “friend to all” whose only interests were in mutually beneficial economic relationships. In so doing, China has sought to draw a contrast between itself and powers like Russia and the United States.

As China’s economy has expanded, so has the Middle Kingdom’s energy consumption. Indeed, China is now the world’s largest oil importer. This fact compels Beijing to continue to try and maintain its “friend to all” policy while simultaneously adding a security dimension to China’s approach to the region. It also means that the Middle East’s importance to Beijing will only continue to grow.

Iran is a key ally in this expansion. Both China and Iran want a diminished American presence in the region. And both regimes have a shared interest in overturning the U.S.-led international order. Indeed, according to a 2021 study by the U.S.-China Security Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC), Beijing “views Tehran’s opposition to the United States as augmenting China’s increasing global influence.”

Iran can also act as a useful foil. Tehran’s extensive terrorist network has a presence on nearly every continent—including North America, where several terror plots, some against U.S. officials and journalists, have recently been foiled. Iranian proxies control Lebanon and Gaza and maintain decisive influence in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen—providing them with the ability to threaten and attack U.S. forces in the region, as well as traditional American allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia. 

And with the United States focused on dealing with the messy Middle East, America is less able to deter and confront a rising China. Indeed, Tehran can also threaten key shipping lanes—lines of commerce that are essential in the emerging global competition between the United States and China. In short: Iran can both distract and attack the United States—aspects that only underline its importance to Beijing.

A close relationship with Tehran also enhances Beijing’s stature with the Islamic Republic’s enemies in the Gulf, like Saudi Arabia. China’s ability to present itself as having influence with Iran only enhances its sway with the Gulf kingdoms and Israel. China can pose as both an arsonist and a firefighter, like its Russian ally. 

In the long term, China seeks to supplant the U.S. in a region whose importance will continue to be key for American allies in Europe, Asia, and beyond. Iran is a chief partner in obtaining this objective.

Nor has Beijing been shy about its support for a nuclear deal. In June 2022, when negotiations between the U.S. and Iran were stalled, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi exhorted: “The U.S. side should earnestly recognize its responsibilities and respond positively to reasonable demands of the Iranian side.” The Islamic Republic’s foreign minister responded by lauding Beijing’s “constructive role.”

China has more than geostrategic reasons for supporting the deal.

According to a report by the Jerusalem Post, U.S. President Joe Biden will “rescind three executive orders pertaining to Iran, as well as secondary sanctions on 17 banks, which would free over $7 billion belonging to Iran from South Korean banks.” The U.S. would also “give a one-time sanctions exemption for Iran to sell 50 million barrels of oil and would permit business negotiations in the areas of energy and aviation.” 

And there’s little doubt about how Iran would spend these funds.

Gen. Franklin McKenzie, who previously served as the head of U.S. Central Command before retiring in 2022, told Fox News that the deal will give Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps “added funding to further their destabilizing and malign activities across the region.”

Eventually, the United States would also “lift the conventional arms embargo” on Tehran—an event that Richard Goldberg, an architect of the U.S. sanctions and an adviser for the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, described as a “huge win for Russia and China.”

Russia has already purchased drones from Iran for use in Ukraine—illustrating the futility of attempting to treat nuclear negotiations with Tehran as separate from the administration’s broader foreign policy goals.

According to the USCC, Beijing is Iran’s “top economic partner” and has steadfastly continued to purchase oil from Tehran despite sanctions. The two nations have cooperated on a variety of defense issues, including the “dismantling” of U.S. spy networks within their borders, as well as technology for Iran’s cruise and ballistic missile programs. Such cooperation is likely to continue and even expand, post-deal.

Perhaps most importantly, by bending over backward to appease the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, the United States would be showing that not only is it unable to decipher friend from foe, but it is also willing to reward the latter at the expense of the former. Such a move signals not only weakness but, at best, strategic confusion. 

As the U.S. looks to confront and deter China it will need allies to be regional bulwarks—just as it did during the Cold War. Shunning allies and embracing enemies is no way to maintain security alliances.

Supporters of the Iran Deal have argued that it will put Tehran’s nuclear program “back in the box,” allowing the United States to leave the Middle East behind and turn to the Indo-Pacific. But the opposite is true. It will only erode existing alliances and relationships while serving Beijing’s hopes to conquer and divide. To paraphrase the legendary French diplomat Talleyrand, “It would be worse than a crime, it would be a mistake.”

Sean Durns is a Senior Research Analyst for CAMERA, the 65,000-member, Boston-based Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis. 

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Sean Durns is a Washington D.C.-based foreign affairs analyst. His views are his own.