Lien-Kai, Lin

Iranian – Chinese Cooperation

The official diplomatic relations between Iran and China have been established since 1971.[1] During the three decades, their cooperation and relationship have been on the increase, but Iran and China have collaborated with each other more strongly in the two decades, especially after the United States started to intervene in the affairs in the Middle East and East Asia more regularly or the Iran’s secret uranium enrichment was discovered in 2002.

Since the discovery of Iran’s capability of uranium enrichment, most Western companies’ investment and government cooperation had been withdrawn from Iran. It left an opportunity that China could deepen its relationship with Iran and develop its influence in the Middle East. Besides, China has already become the Iran’s largest oil customer of late years.[2]

The Iranian government is willing to accept China’s financial aid and the investment from Chinese companies to develop its fundamental constructions. Therefore, Iranian energy and Chinese investment are the major fundamental components to maintain their economic relationship.

On the political side, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Chinese President Xi Jinping have met with each other several times since 2013.[3] In July 2005, Iran became an observer in Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and tendered the formal application to become a full member in 2008.[4] In 2016, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani invited Chinese President Xi Jinping for the state visit in Tehran. During the state visit, they reached an agreement and issued an official statement to make sure that their economic, political, cultural and strategical partnership would keep rising stably in the future.[5]

Iran and China have also cooperated with each other in the military field over time. For instance, China has provided military hardware and equipment for Iran during the Iran-Iraq War. For the past couple of years, China has also provided Iran with the missile technology and assisted Iran in establishing its own missile system. From 1985 to 1996, China provided Iran with the nuclear technology and machinery in uranium exploration and mining.[6] Clearly, China was the key player in Iran’s nuclear proliferation.

Iran’s nuclear proliferation and China’s economic growth are the most effectual leverages to threaten the United States and its regional allies. That is why the Western countries try to hamper the situation through subsuming both the countries into the liberal international order which has been designed by the West. If the United States keeps pressuring Iran by its own standards, Iran will have no choice but to collaborate with China more staunchly than ever before, and try to exploit China’s rising power to divert American attention to East Asia rather than the Middle East.

Will the cooperation between Iran and China really become a new threat to challenge the American influence possibly in those areas and compel the United States to change its strategy? Or Iran and China will just focus on reinforcing their cooperation rather than establishing an alliance? This article will observe the economic cooperation, political relationship and military collaboration between Iran and China and exploit the standards to inspect whether Iranian-Chinese cooperation is to counter the United States.

Counter the United States?

Iranian-Chinese cooperation is a successful cooperation that the two countries have collaborated to pursue their mutual benefits, but it still remains a question, whether their cooperation is to counter the United States’.

China may capitulate to the pressure from the United States and the international sanctions to reduce the oil import from Iran, especially when the trade negotiations have been proceeded. According to the statistic, Iran’s average oil exports to China was 590 (thousand barrels/day) between May to October 2018, but after the sanctions on Iran were implemented by the US Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) in November 5, 2018, it plunged to 360 (thousand barrels/day) between November 2018 to March 2019.[7]

By the information from OPEC, Iran’s oil production reached 3.8 (millions of barrels per day) before the US sanctions at the beginning of 2018, but it decreased to 2.3 (millions of barrels per day).[8] The information expressed that the sanctions were effective in limiting Iran’s oil export.

The United States government implemented a new sanction on Iran in May 8, 2019, which asked every countries cannot import the oil from Iran.[9] Some analyst thought  that China would keep importing oil from Iran in the short term, but it would reduce the volume of import, in order to make sure that it could reach an agreement with the United States successfully during the negotiations of trade war. Actually, although Beijing claimed that its cooperation with Iran is totally legal, it still has to capitulate the pressure from the United States and accept the rules of international order which has been designed by the Western countries, before it becomes a super power in East Asia.


China, as a rising power has perceived the significance of the Middle East, and it has exploited the common grounds that China and Iran have been intervened by the Western countries with the international liberal order and universalism to collaborate with Iran to counter their potential enemies. Economically, Chinese economic power and Iranian oil resources are the fundamental components of the mutual benefits.

The economic cooperation between Iran and China is often misunderstood as a simply cooperation upon just benefits, but according to “One Belt One Road”, Iran has an indispensable role in this plan, and China can only connect the selected countries and isolate the American allies in the Middle East through Iran. The other point to be made is the oil import. Although Saudi Arabia has been the largest oil exporter to China, Iran can serve as the second line to provide oil resources. Due to the international sanctions on Iran, the oil price of Iran is less than Saudi Arabia. Oil is a very important strategic resource; therefore, China can exploit it to develop its economy and military power.

The political Iranian-Chinese cooperation is a basis to promote their military relationship as well. According to the joint statement, Iran and China have reaffirmed that no countries have the right to intervene in the internal politics of other countries, especially using their own standards or values to inspect them.

With the same consensus, China and Iran try to enhance their interdependence to expand the military cooperation in order to counter opposing forces, mainly the United States. Especially after the US President Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal and restarted pressuring Iran, it had no choice but to strengthen its comprehensive cooperation with China. In recent years, China and Iran will use the soft balancing to counter the United States, and will not generate a serious conflict, because China still has to capitulate to the pressure from the United States, especially during the negotiations of trade war. Therefore, it will not complicate the problems and let the Iranian-Chinese cooperation become a leverage for the United States.

Lien-Kai, Lin: He is earning his Master’s degree at NCHU Graduate Institute of International Politics. His major research interests are national security, international economy, democracy and autocracy, national cooperation and the domestic politics of the United States, trying to search a model to realize the shifting situation of international relations.

[1] 「中国同伊朗的关系」,中华人民共和国外交部



[2] Though as the risk of conflict and an international agreement to ban Iranian oil imports have risen, China has begun diversifying its oil imports, reducing its reliance on Iran, and seeking to secure alternate sources of supply. “China Replaces Iran Oil with Mideast, Africa, and Russia,” al Arabiya, December 23, 2011; Reuters, “China Buys Russia, Vietnam Oil as Iran Supply Cut,” January 4, 2012; Reuters, “China’s Wen Presses Saudi Arabia for Oil Access,”(January 14, 2012)

[3] 「中国同伊朗的关系」,中华人民共和国外交部,



[4] Sabena Siddiqui, “Why Iran Won’t Be Joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Anytime Soon.” The Globe Post <>(June 27, 2019)


[6] See Garver, 2007, Chapter 6, “China’s Assistance to Iran’s Nuclear Programs,” especially pp. 156–158. See also Nuclear Threat Initiative, “China’s Nuclear Exports and Assistance to Iran,”(September 23, 2003.)

[7] Rules and Regulations, Federal Register, Vol. 83, No. 214,( November 5, 2018) and “Six charts that show how hard US sanctions have hit Iran,” BBC NEWS,

<>(November 5, 2018)

[8] OPEC, ”Six charts that show how hard US sanctions have hit Iran,” BBC NEWS,

<>(November 5, 2018)

[9] Executive Order 13871, Federal Register, Vol. 84, No. 91,(May 8, 2019)

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