On Jan. 23, 2024, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin while referring to China’s efforts towards reducing strains between Iran and China said: “China welcomes the good progress that Iran and Pakistan have made in repairing their ties and supports them in further enhancing mutual trust and deepening cooperation through friendly consultation.”
After the escalation of tensions between both countries, following missile strikes by countries, Beijing had offered to intervene. Iran had struck bases of the militant group Jaish al-Adl in Pakistan’s Balochistan province on January 16, 2024. Pakistan in retaliation struck what it dubbed as “terrorist hide outs” in Iran’s Sistan-Balochistan Province on January 18, 2024. Both countries had recalled their ambassadors.
The foreign ministers of Iran and Pakistan spoke to each other on January 19, 2024 and decided to reduce tensions. On January 22, 2024 a joint statement issued by Foreign Ministries of Iran and Pakistan announced that their Ambassadors would resume their duties by January 26, 2024. The statement also said that Iran’s Foreign Minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian is likely to visit Pakistan on January 29, 2024.
China is perhaps the only country which has strong political and economic leverage vis-à-vis both Pakistan and Iran.
China has maintained traditionally robust ties with Pakistan and the China-Pakistan Economic corridor (CPEC) has resulted in both countries growing closer. Pakistan’s strains with the US — though in recent years both countries have tried to mend fences — were another factor for Islamabad moving even closer to Beijing over the past decade.
Due to the US withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear Deal/Joint Comprehensive Program Plan of Action — JCPOA, Iran has also moved closer to China. In March 2021, both countries had signed a 25-year cooperation accord for enhancing economic relations and strategic ties. Iran, was also amongst the five countries, which has entered the BRICS+ grouping — a China dominated organisation – earlier this month. Like several other countries, Iran has also been supporting de-dollarization – or dependence on the dollar for trade — efforts.
China’s Foreign Minister, Sun Weidong who was in a Pakistan on a three day visit categorically reiterated China’s support for Pakistan for the latter’s maintenance of the latter’s “sovereignty, independence, and territory integrity.”
Significantly, there has been talk of China-Pakistan-Iran cooperation under the umbrella of China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and Iran has even invited Pakistan to join the Chabahar Port Project.
In June 2023, China hosted counter terrorism and regional security consultations with a focus on the situation in Balochistan.
China’s robust ties with Iran and US perceptions
While the US has been wary of China’s increasing clout in the Middle East, during the Israel-Palestine conflict, US had asked China to urge Iran to prevent escalation of the conflict. Washington has also asked Beijing to prevent Red Sea attacks by the Iran supported Houthi rebels.
While China offered to act as an intermediary between Pakistan and Iran, US was critical of Iran with US President, Joe Biden saying: “As you can see, Iran is not particularly well liked in the region.”
Trump’s Iran policy
Many commentators hail former US President — and likely Republican candidate — in the 2024 US Presidential election Donald Trump’s foreign policy and point to the Abraham accords — signed in 2020 – brokered by Trump, which resulted in the normalisation of ties between Israel and four Arab states – UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco. During his address after his win in the Iowa caucuses while Trump spoke about how he had economically squeezed Iran and it would not have been in a position, to support Hamas and Hezbollah. The former US President said Iran was “broke”.
It is important to remember that Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal has pushed Tehran towards the China camp. Even the Biden Administration which initially worked towards revival of the deal has failed to make any significant progress due to domestic opposition – not just from Republicans but a section of Democrats — to the deal. Iran’s military support for Russia during the Russia-Ukraine war, violation of nuclear commitments made by Iran under JCPOA , recent attacks by Houthis, supported by Iran, in the red sea and multiple challenges for the Biden Administration in the election year mean that the revival of the Iran deal is unlikely in the imminent future.
In conclusion, China’s response towards the tensions clearly highlights its growing clout in the Middle East. At the same time, Beijing would be concerned about the strains between Islamabad and Kabul and Islamabad and Tehran since these could have an impact on the CPEC project and China’s economic and strategic linkages with Afghanistan and Iran.
[Photo by Hogweard, via Wikimedia Commons]
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi based analyst interested in Punjab-Punjab linkages as well as Partition Studies. Maini co-authored ‘Humanity Amidst Insanity: Hope During and After the Indo-Pak Partition’ (New Delhi: UBSPD, 2008) with Tahir Malik and Ali Farooq Malik. He can be reached at [email protected].