SIA professor: U.S. failure to reach nuclear agreement with Iran will boost Iran-China relations

Flynt Leverett Credit: Mashregh News

In a Penn State Law Legal Studies Research Paper, School of International Affairs professor Flynt Leverett reasons that Iran and China’s relationship will continue to grow stronger, as U.S. policy continues to oppose the emergence of independent power centers in the Middle East. Co-authored with his wife, Hillary Mann Leverett, “American Hegemony (and Hubris), the Iranian Nuclear Issue, and the Future of Sino-Iranian Relations” was published just before the November 24 extension of nuclear negotiations between Iran and the “P5+1” (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany).

The Leveretts were visiting Iran at the time the extension was announced. One of the largest Iranian news organizations, Mashregh, ran an article about their paper, which examines the impact of U.S. policy on Sino-Iranian relations.

The paper sets analysis of Chinese relations with Iran against the backdrop of China’s most important long-term foreign policy goal—to move international politics from a condition of U.S.-led unipolarity to a more genuinely multipolar world where several great powers, including China, play leading roles:

“On the one hand, China must rise (or return) to great power status within the existing, in many respects, still U.S.-dominated system,” write the authors. “On the other hand, China must meet its developmental goals without surrendering its strategic autonomy and set the stage for systemic transformation without provoking a countervailing reaction from the United States.”

The paper explains how, in this context, China has been challenged to balance relations with the United States against its relations with Persian Gulf countries that Washington dislikes, a dynamic the authors call Beijing’s “Persian Gulf dilemma.” China’s Persian Gulf dilemma has been especially acute regarding the development of relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The Leveretts explain how, over the last 20 years, Iran has emerged as Beijing’s most important Middle Eastern partner: As China has become the world’s biggest oil importer, it has also become the biggest consumer of Iranian crude oil, and, as its Iranian oil imports have risen, China has paid for them by boosting exports to Iran—consumer goods, cars, machinery, engineering and technical services, and military supplies. In the process, China has replaced the European Union as Iran’s biggest trading partner and leading foreign investor.

At the same time, U.S. pressure—mostly over Iran’s nuclear activities—has prompted China to restrain development of its relations with Iran in significant ways. Since Iran’s 1979 revolution, Washington has imposed an array of unilateral sanctions against the Islamic Republic; more recently, it has threatened to impose secondary sanctions against third countries doing business with Iran. Like most of the world, China sees these secondary sanctions, in particular, as an “extraterritorial assertion of a foreign power’s law” and, therefore, illegal. Still, Beijing has been reluctant to confront Washington over the issue.

Today, though, according the the Leveretts, five major trends are reducing Beijing’s willingness to continue accommodating Washington by limiting Chinese ties to Iran”

1. The United States is increasingly seen—in China as well as in Iran—as a declining superpower in the Middle East and globally.

2. U.S. demands that China further reduce its ties to Iran impinge not only on Chinese economic interests, but on core strategic interests—including energy security and foreign policy independence.

3. The U.S. approach to nuclear diplomacy with Iran, and to the Middle East more generally, reinforces Chinese perceptions that Washington does not want to resolve its differences with Tehran but instead seeks to remake the regional balance of power to perpetuate American dominance over this critical part of the world—including in ways harmful to Chinese interests.

4. Some Chinese elites are concerned that, if Washington somehow managed to improve relations with Iran, China could find itself competing with the United States over opportunities to cooperate economically and strategically with Iran.

5. Outside the Middle East, Beijing increasingly believes that U.S. policy aims to constrain China’s emergence as a legitimately influential world power.

The Leveretts argue that, by driving China and Iran closer together and alienating the vast majority of Middle Easterners, current U.S. policy toward Iran and the Middle East is counter-productive for U.S. interests. They propose that the United States recognize Iran’s right to a civil nuclear program that includes indigenous nuclear fuel cycle capabilities (something China recognized long ago), respect its independence, and fundamentally realign U.S. relations with the Islamic Republic—much like President Richard Nixon fundamentally realigned U.S. relations with China four decades ago.

“Until the United States rationalizes its Iran policy along these lines, the erosion of its strategic position in the Middle East will not just continue, but will accelerate,” they write. “Under these circumstances, China and other external powers will increase their own standing and influence in the region, effectively at America’s expense. And relations with the Islamic Republic will be key to their doing so.”

An expert on the Middle East, international political economy, and Chinese foreign policy, Flynt Leverett is part of the founding faculty at Penn State's School of International Affairs, faculty affiliate at Penn State Law and in Penn State’s Asian Studies Program, and visiting scholar at Peking University's School of International Studies. He is a regular contributor to The World Financial Review and, with his wife and frequent co-author, Hillary Mann Leverett, writes, a prominent forum for analysis on Iran and the Middle East.