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Pompeo’s Warning Against Closer China-Iran Ties Highlights Dilemma for Beijing

Chinese President Xi Jinping, center right, shakes hands with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, as they pose for a photograph in an official arrival ceremony, at the Saadabad Palace in Tehran, Iran, Jan. 23, 2016.
Chinese President Xi Jinping, center right, shakes hands with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, as they pose for a photograph in an official arrival ceremony, at the Saadabad Palace in Tehran, Iran, Jan. 23, 2016.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s latest warning that China would destabilize the Middle East by deepening ties with U.S. foe Iran is raising questions about how far Beijing will go to boost its partner Tehran in an emerging deal that would heighten U.S.-China tensions.

“China’s entry into Iran will destabilize the Middle East. It’ll put Israel at risk. It’ll put the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Emirates at risk as well,” Pompeo told U.S. TV network Fox News in a Sunday interview, as he urged the three U.S. allies and other regional countries to beware of Beijing, one of Washington’s main international rivals.

“Iran remains the world’s largest state sponsor of terror, and to have access to weapons systems and commerce and money flowing from the Chinese Communist Party only compounds that risk for that region,” Pompeo added. Tehran, which has armed Islamist militant groups blamed for terrorist attacks in the Middle East and beyond for decades, describes itself as a terror victim rather than sponsor.

The top U.S. diplomat was speaking in reference to Western media reports, published last month, suggesting China and Iran were close to finalizing a 25-year trade and military agreement known as a “comprehensive strategic partnership.” Chinese and Iranian leaders first agreed to work toward such a deal — the highest level of bilateral relations that Beijing grants to a partner — in 2016.

In recent weeks, Iranian officials have said talks with China on a deal were continuing but gave no indication of when they will conclude. Beijing has not shared any details of the negotiations.

The two regional powers have been economic and military allies for decades. China is Iran’s top trading partner and supplied weapons to Tehran as long ago as the 1980s. International arms sales to Iran have been banned by the U.N. Security Council since 2010, but the embargo is due to expire on October 18 and China has signaled that it will veto a U.S. draft resolution to have it extended.

China also participated in a first-ever three-way naval exercise with Iran and their mutual partner Russia last December in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Oman.

Some analysts say Beijing has a strong interest in reaching an Iran deal that resumes arms sales to Tehran and injects billions of dollars into its struggling economy in return for discounts on Iranian oil exports and other concessions.

Iran has been in recession since 2018, when the United States began tightening sanctions aimed at pressuring Tehran to stop perceived malign behaviors. The unilateral U.S. sanctions have forced most nations besides China to cut off their purchases of Iranian oil, the main source of revenue for Tehran.

In an August 2 article on the U.S. news site Tablet, analysts Michael Doran and Peter Rough of the Washington-based Hudson Institute said the benefits to China of fueling what they called the “destabilizing activities” of Iran and Russia are “many and substantial.”

Doran and Rough said such a Chinese strategy would “exhaust” U.S. leaders dedicated to reducing commitments to the Middle East, "damage American prestige” by enabling Iran to prop up allied forces fighting U.S. influence in the region, and “pin down” U.S. naval resources in the Persian Gulf to deal with threatening Iranian behavior rather than in the Western Pacific that China seeks to dominate.

The Hudson analysts said another benefit to China would be sowing further division between the United States and Washington’s European allies over how to handle Iran’s nuclear program and involvement in regional conflicts. They said U.S. allies who doubt Washington’s commitment to the region also could be forced to cultivate better ties with Beijing.

Other analysts told VOA Persian that they see several factors influencing China against enabling Iran to further destabilize the Middle East.

“The Chinese have done pretty well under the status quo,” said Guy Burton, an international affairs professor at Belgium’s Vesalius College. He said the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and continued U.S. military presence in the country have made it stable enough for China to win lucrative contracts to develop Iraq’s oil and gas industry. Such stability could be jeopardized if Iran-backed Iraqi Shiite militias step up attacks on the U.S. forces there.

Burton said another factor is China’s interest in not escalating tensions with Washington by aggressively defying U.S. sanctions on Iran. While Beijing remains the top purchaser of Iranian oil, he said it has “very quietly been pulling back” from such oil imports and other investments in Iran over the past year.

Howard Shatz, a senior economist at the RAND Corporation in Arlington, Virginia, said China also may not be able to persuade Iran to accept as strong a partnership as Beijing would like.

“Iran’s population is not necessarily totally receptive to large scale Chinese involvement in the country,” Shatz said. “China is providing an economic lifeline for Iran right now, but some Iranians fear a lot of Chinese involvement could limit Iran's power in the region.”

An additional restraint on Beijing’s pursuit of closer ties with Iran, the analysts told VOA, is the Chinese government’s existing strong economic and military ties with U.S. allies Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel.

China has “comprehensive strategic partnerships” with both Saudi Arabia and the UAE, relying on them as two of its main sources of oil imports while also selling arms to both nations. Beijing also has a lower-level partnership with Israel involving investments in the Jewish state’s high-tech sector.

Robert Mogielnicki, an analyst at the Washington-based Arab Gulf States Institute, said such relationships are a “safer bet” for China than closer ties with Iran.

“I see a lot more stability and potential for China to build its economic relations and strategic partnerships that already exist in the region, rather than reinventing the wheel with a risky partner like Iran,” Mogielnicki said.

This article originated in VOA’s Persian Service.