Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei meets with Chinese president Xi Jinping. Tehran’s dalliance with Beijing may turn out to be a way of signalling it has options
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei meets with Chinese president Xi Jinping. Tehran’s dalliance with Beijing may turn out to be a way of signalling it has options © Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader/AP

The US is telling some of its closest Arab allies — Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain — to stop ganging up on another American ally in the Gulf: Qatar. The Saudi-led group has subjected the tiny gas-rich emirate to a blockade by land, air and sea for more than three years.

The Saudi animus behind this embargo is fired mainly by Qatar’s open lines to Iran, whereas the chief motive for Egypt and the UAE is Doha’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood and alliance with Turkey. They have all been incensed by the Qatari ruling family’s sponsorship of Al Jazeera, the pan-Arab broadcaster they believe subverts their rule with its criticism.

US president Donald Trump initially tweeted enthusiastic support for the blockade, persuaded it was a ringing blow against jihadism. Now his state department’s special representative for Iran, Brian Hook, is telling them to get over it. “The dispute has continued for too long and it ultimately harms our shared regional interests in stability, prosperity and security”, he said in Doha on Sunday. What has changed?

The prospect of an alliance between Iran and China looms large, even if, so far, only in outline. Divisions in the Arab Gulf are a damaging distraction when China might be thinking of building a presence on Iran’s Gulf shores, right in front of the US navy’s Fifth Fleet, based in Bahrain, and the biggest American air base in the wider Middle East at Al-Udeid in Qatar. Perhaps Mr Trump forgot about the Qatar-hosted air base when he casually egged on the Saudi alliance against the Qataris.

Facts about this putative Sino-Iranian pact are sparse. Beijing is saying little, and the Islamic Republic’s leaders are ducking a backlash from nationalists claiming Iran is about to become a Chinese client-state. An outline of the draft agreement, available in Tehran, speaks of a comprehensive strategic partnership — an investment and security pact for 25 years.

Supposedly, China would invest in airports and ports, telecoms and transport, oil and gasfields, infrastructure and banking, acquiring assets as it addresses Iran’s unmet investment needs. In exchange, it would take massive, discounted deliveries of Iranian oil over those 25 years, to feed an import need that last year reached 10m barrels a day. This is roughly what Saudi Arabia, Iran’s arch-rival, produces.

It seems a vast agenda to have burst suddenly on the geopolitical world. In fact, discussions began in 2016 when Chinese president Xi Jinping visited Tehran and met Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. That followed the landmark nuclear constraint deal Iran signed in 2015 with the US and five other powers: France, Germany, the UK, Russia and China.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action mothballed most of Iran’s nuclear programme and limited its uranium enrichment under strict international supervision. In the view of then US president Barack Obama, this not only dealt with the menacing prospect that Tehran might acquire a nuclear weapon but, by reintegrating Iran into the world economy, would bring a new balance of power to the Middle East by forcing the Saudis and Iranians to share the region.

That prospect, always too rosy to critics of the JCPOA, was obliterated by the advent of Mr Trump, who called on Saudi Arabia to lead a campaign to isolate Iran. In 2018 he withdrew the US from the nuclear deal, reimposed draconian sanctions on the Iranian economy and threatened penalties on allies as well as adversaries who do business with Iran.

From Iran’s point of view, a China deal would be a lifeline to escape this strangulation of its economy. For China, closer ties with Iran could be a logical extension of its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, as well as a riposte to the Trump administration’s confrontational stance towards Beijing.

Still, there may be less to the Iranian-Chinese “strategic partnership” than meets the eye. The oil part of the partnership is easily explained by China’s voracious appetite for crude imports. Beijing has similar long-term supply deals with Russia, for 25 years, and Iraq, for 20 years. The difference is that Mr Trump is trying to reduce Iran’s oil exports to zero.

Yet Iran’s first choice, after signing the JCPOA in the hope of ending its pariah status, was to seek to rebuild economic links to the west rather than the east. Iran’s preference, sabotaged by Mr Trump, could revive if Joe Biden, his Democratic challenger, were to defeat him in November and resuscitate the nuclear compact with Iran. Tehran’s dalliance with Beijing may then turn out to be a way of signalling it has options. Still among them, probably, is a desire to land western deals and investment.

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