On March 27, 2021, China and Iran signed a 25-year strategic cooperation agreement reaffirming China’s effort to build an Asian axis of alliances and penetrate the Middle East. Russia cooperates with both of them as well as with Turkey, but also pursues its own strategy in the Middle East and with the Middle Eastern and North African countries.
The Tehran-Beijing agreement could serve as a precedent to lure Ankara into a similar strategic agreement, which would offer a lifeline to the collapsing Turkish economy, and also provide Ankara with a strong bargaining chip in the face of U.S. pressure. Moreover, it may also help Turkey to make the leap by turning its rift with the West into an abyss. If Turkey decides to stay on the Western side, then it can use the threat of siding with Tehran and Beijing to gain favorable exchanges from the U.S. and other allies (i.e., a more extended power role in Eastern Mediterranean, carte blanche for its aggressiveness in the Aegean, a watchdog role in Libya, a free hand in Syria, a vanguard position to sting Russia's vulnerable border with Azerbaijan, to mention only few). If Turkey decides break its alignment with the West, it will solidify its pacts with China and Iran to make up for the losses it will suffer by leaving the West. As an indication of China’s effort to increase its presence in the region, consider the Middle East tour conducted in March by China’s Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, during which he visited not only Iran but also Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Turkey, Oman, and Bahrain.
Iran’s strategy after 1979 has led to the creation of a “Shiite crescent” that starts in Iran and ends in the Mediterranean Sea via Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, plus the Shiites of Bahrain and the Houthis in Yemen. Israel and the Gulf monarchies have not been able to stop this expansion. Iran has achieved a lot, despite its isolation: it has sent dozens of Shiite paramilitary organizations, as well as members of the Revolutionary Guard to Syria. Its allies in Yemen (the Houthis) continue to control most of northern Yemen. In Lebanon, Hezbollah remains the most powerful militant group, while in Iraq the Shiite militia continues to operate unhindered.
U.S. sanctions have created serious problems for the Iranian economy, only further exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. Even if a new deal on Iran’s nuclear program emerges, the United States should not stop blocking Iran's expansion into the Middle East because it threatens its allies (Israel and Saudi Arabia) and reinforces sectarian violence and terrorism. America will certainly be assisted by the axis of Saudi Arabia—United Arab Emirates and their allies (Bahrain, Jordan, and Yemen) with which Iran has been in a “proxy war” for at least a decade. Given the Chinese presence in the Middle East, through the strategic agreement with Iran, the U.S. policy of putting pressure on the Gulf monarchies with human rights at the forefront, seems problematic.
A serious accelerator of Iran’s expansion in the area is Turkey. Today, Turkey and Iran have developed an opportunistic, yet effective type of cooperation. It is a fact that the two countries have common interests in energy, in nuclear aspirations, and in Kurdistan. Even though they have conflicting interests due to their efforts of gaining the role of protectors of the opposing Sunni and Shi’a factions respectively, their short- and medium-term interests overpower their differences. Best proof for this is the engagement of Turkey in the bypassing of sanctions against Iran (Halkbank case). Russia has already secured its presence in the Middle East. Moscow and Tehran are cooperating for three reasons. First, their shared enmity towards the U.S. Second, Western sanctions have brought the two countries (and Turkey) closer to economic co-operation. Third, they have common interests in Syria—the survival of the Assad regime and the elimination of ISIS. In Syria, Iran provides “the boots on the ground,” suffering casualties, whereas Russia launches air and missile strikes, avoiding human losses, which could have a negative impact on Putin’s popularity in Russia.1 Russia, however, does not want Iran’s permanent presence in Syria because that would reduce Russian influence there.
China, on the other hand, has every reason to tighten its ties with Iran. First, Iran is part of the new Silk Road (Belt and Road Initiative) and the ports that China is building there significantly strengthen its presence in the Persian Gulf. China also looks forward to future energy cooperation with gas-rich Iran. The geostrategic implications for the U.S. are serious: The prospect of building a pipeline from Iran to Pakistan (which is dependent on China because of India) and from there to Chinese territory is strengthened (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor [CPEC]). So how wise is the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan? And given the Iran-China deal, how reasonable does U.S. pressure on India not to buy the S-400s seem? It threatens to eradicate India from strategic cooperation with Japan and Australia. India is neither a NATO member nor has it asked for F-35s to raise issues such as those with Turkey.
In addition, Iran is one of the main reasons for the U.S. stay in the Middle East. This benefits China, which is trying to delay the implementation of the American “Pivot to Asia,” with the aim of halting China. Finally, Iran may be a stopover in the Middle East. The Chinese want to infiltrate the area by building or controlling infrastructure. Iran could contribute to China’s penetration of the Levant (i.e., the port of Beirut and the reconstruction of Syria) which would lead to the expansion of the Chinese presence on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, not to mention their cultural and economic penetration in the Balkans, boosted by their anti-CORONA diplomacy in the region.
Iran plays an important role in the Middle East, and the Eastern Mediterranean, by reflection. It also influences the policies of Russia and China. It seems that relations with Russia are more conjunctural, while with China they have a strategic character. In any case, Iran will continue to influence the region for many more years, depending on how long of a leash the United States allows it to have.
The assessments and opinions expressed in this article are strictly those of the author himself and in no case of the Hellenic Ministry of Foreign Affairs.